Essays and Articles > Unprepared for College

I have written so often about the upreparedness of U.S. high-school students for college that I now feel as if raising that subject again is not just beating a dead horse; it is more like pummeling away at the carcass of a horse that has been buried for a very long time.  Hardly anybody wants to participate in the activity because the stench is so bad.  It's much more comfortable to pretend that it doesn't exist, like the fabled invisible elephant in the living room, or to hold one's nose and divert attention to something else.

However, alarming facts continue to emerge, suggesting that the decaying carcass is getting even smellier or, to use the other image, that the invisible elephant we are trying to ignore is getting bigger every day.

For example, recent assessments by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveal that, compared with 15-year-olds in 34 developed nations, American students rank 14th in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in math.  These figures represent, if not a decline, at least no significant improvement from previous results of the study (which is conducted at three-year intervals).  In other words, despite all the periodic muttering about reform of education and the implementation of programs such as "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), the educational achievement of American high-school students (compared to those in other countries) has, at best, stalled at an already low point or has possibly declined even further.

A common rebuttal to these dismal comparisons is that the U.S. offers universal, "equal-opportunity" public education, while many of the countries to which it is being compared do not.  On the other hand, data place high-school completion rates in the U.S. at about 75%, which is lower than the rate for many other developed nations.  Even more significantly, in a country that once led the world in college completion rates and where a college degree is being increasingly touted as very important, the U.S. now ranks 12th among 36 developed in the percentage of people who complete college degrees.  More than one-third of college enrollees fail to complete degrees six years after they enrolled, and this figure includes those seeking two-year associate's degrees.

The data differ slightly among various reports and by how measurements are made and interpreted, but the pattern is inescapable:  U.S. students do not do well compared to students in many other countries in terms of the proportion who complete an educational program after they are enrolled in school at either the high school or college level.  If we combine this statistical fact with low levels of achievement among those who do complete school, at least at the high-school level, the picture is even more bleak.

One could say, as some do, that poor scores by American students versus, say, those from Shanghai are no big deal.  We still have a productive, economically powerful nation, in which thousands (even millions) of our citizens are smart and creative.  We still have about the highest standards of living of any country on the globe.  Such a complacent and self-congratulatory view, however, is almost certain to perpetuate the deterioration of American education and to erode the nation's productivity and creativity.  If we don't become smarter, we will become poorer – in every sense of the word.

Of what value is "universal education" if large proportions of students do not complete their education and if those who do complete a certain stage have achieved so little that they are unprepared for the next stage?  Here is where the data (low graduation rates and low performance) intersect.  The low achievement levels of high-school graduates mean not only that they are unprepared for productive work in general (thus increasing the necessity for higher education) but also that they will not be able to handle college work, thus increasing the likelihood that they will never earn degrees or have successful careers.

When high-school graduates are unprepared for college work, at least two consequences are likely.  One is that colleges are forced to lower standards.  Although elite or highly selective institutions may still be able to demand truly college-level work, public colleges (and especially community colleges) are forced to lower expectations to levels that these poorly prepared students can handle.  Introductory courses become more and more like remedial courses.  It is not possible to prove with complete objectivity that this is precisely what has happened, but there is considerable anecdotal evidence that it has.  Of course, any lowering of standards ultimately cheapens the value of a degree, even for those who complete the work.

A more telling consequence – and this one can be statistically proven to have occurred – is that huge numbers of students who are admitted to college will be taking remedial courses before they can take regular college classes.  This is very bad for many reasons.  It diverts an ever larger portion of an institution's instructional resources (including professorial staff) to providing what should have been provided in high school.  It costs taxpayers money (and it's amazing that taxpayers are not screaming about this because their taxes have already financed the high-school classes in which the same material was supposed to have been taught).  Finally, it is often too liitle, too late because data show that students who need remediation upon admission are still highly unlikely (much more so than those who do not need it) to complete college anyway.

A recent article (Sharon Otterman:  "Most New York Students Are Not College-Ready," New York Times, Feb. 7, 2011) illustrates the extent of this sorry situation.  The findings concern only New York State, but there are good reasons to believe (and data to support the view) that other parts of the country are just as bad or worse.  The report states that "less than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying jobs."  (That is, more than half are unprepared.)

Education officials are encouraged because graduation rates have improved recently (to 77% statewide and 64% in the city).  One may well wonder why a situation in which nearly a fourth of those in the state and a third of those in the city who start high school fail to graduate is good news, but we'll put that aside.  Statistics also show that, in New York City in 2009,  only 23% (more than half of those who completed high school) were "ready for college or careers."  Face it:  If one-third are not graduating at all, and more than half of those who do graduate are unprepared, the schools are failing miserably.

In New York State, Regents exams provide a reliable way to measure preparedness for college work.  Based on data for students' actual performance in state and community colleges, experts determined that a score of 75 on the English Regents exam and 80 on the math Regents exam "roughly predicted that students would get a C or better in a college-level course in the same subject."  In 2009, only two in five (41%) of New York State graduates achieved those scores.  In other words, three in five would probably need remedial work to have a decent chance of passing even these basic introductory courses.  In fact, in New York City, "roughly 75% of public high school students who enroll in community colleges need to take remedial math or English courses before they can begin college-level work."

This means that money and resources are being devoted to repeating the instruction that we've already paid for (in any other context, we would call this double-billing or a rip-off).  Community colleges were not initially intended to correct for high schools' failures but to provide low-cost transitions to four-year colleges (freshman and sophomore courses on par with those offered by senior colleges) or advanced training for certain careers.  Instead, the emphasis on remediation and the concomitant watering down of regular introductory courses have caused at least the first year of community college to be dubbed "glorified 13th grade," and it's possible to assert convincingly that it is not even that.  Many students "pass" freshman English and other basic courses in community college with no better than 8th-grade proficiency.

Parents, students, and taxpayers should be outraged.  Educators should be diligently seeking ways to stop this juggernaut of failure (instead of making excuses or blaming everyone and everything other than the schools themselves).  However, they have done little or nothing – except to ask for more funding, even though there's scant evidence to show that throwing money at the problems has done much good.  What the educators have done, in essence, is to give up on improving secondary education and to hope that remediation at the college level will make up for the wasted years that preceded (even though data show that this doesn't happen).

I recently read comments by the president of a New Jersey community college who was being asked if the large proportions of entering students who had to take remedial courses at her institution didn't suggest that the high schools were doing a poor job.  She declared flat-out that it indicated no such thing.  She based her denial on the argument that many community college students are older, had been out of school for a long time, and accounted for the large number of students in remedial classes.

This is poppycock.  I happen to have taught the freshman English course at this college for more than 20 years, as a part-timer with one night class a semester.   Overall, since it was a night class, a higher-than-average proportion of the class were the students to whom she referred – older students who had been out of school for a while.  Also, about a third (10 to 12 out of 30 in the class) of my students had been required to take remedial English to be eligible to take my class.  Few of those (usually only one or two) who came to my English 101 class via the remedial route were older students.  The vast majority of those who had needed remedial work to qualify were in the 19- or 20-year-old group – students who had enrolled immediately after high-school graduation but had spent a year or a semester doing remedial work because they were unprepared for the regular English 101 class.

It's tempting to say that this college president's spurious explanation of why so many community college students require remediation is a typical example of an educator's distorting the facts to get other educators off the hook.  That may or may not be true.  The fact, however, is that, if even college administrators go out of their way to deny the obvious fact that the large numbers of students requiring remedial work prove that secondary schools are not doing their jobs, it's highly unlikely that educators are going to try to fix the schools.  They will continue to cast about desperately for other reasons why large numbers of high-school graduates are not ready for college or careers – or, if they are in utter denial, will insist that all the evidence is concocted by people who just want to bash educators.  The lengths to which educators will go to prove that the decline of American education is caused by something other than lousy schools are mind-boggling.  So are the lengths to which some go to argue that American education is not declining at all.

Mind-boggling, irrational, and contrary to evidence as these denials are, the educational establishment has been spectacularly successful at selling this bill of goods to the public.  In fact, perpetuating these lies and distortions has been about all that the educational establishment has been successful at doing.  They have manipulated this mythology to persuade federal and state governments to invest increasingly large amounts of taxpayer money into a dysfunctional system, even though the investments have not made it any less dysfunctional.  They have used propaganda that is entirely unsupported by the evidence to resist virtually all changes in the system and to preserve the status quo.

I shall concede only one point:  The decline of American education is not wholly the fault of the schools.  The educational system that we have is the product of the society in which we live.  Without the support of parents, without an intelligent approach to education by the government, without the active involvement of business and industry in supporting public education, the schools' job becomes infinitely more difficult.  Also, in the broader perspective, if we do not have a society that genuinely esteems knowledge and learning but pays only lip service to them, we – and, consequently, our children – will not give education a very high priority.  Nonetheless, schools influence society as much as society influences its schools. 

An effective educational system will have the same characteristics that have been associated with an educated man or woman as long as education has existed:  the ability to lead and to inspire others to follow; a devotion to the general good and not just to self-preservation; a willingness to be self-critical (to recognize its own faults) and to change accordingly; sufficient open-mindedness to accept new ideas and try new ways of doing things, coupled with the common sense to preserve traditional methods that do work; the courage to be self-reliant but the wisdom not to mistake false self-esteem for self-reliance; a respect for learning for its own sake, regardless of whether it brings demonstrable, tangible rewards.  An educational system that upholds these values will create an innovative, creative, and smart society, inhabited by innovative, creative, and smart individuals who need have no fear of being outclassed, outdone, or outsmarted by anyone.

There is little doubt that, in the recent past, Americans individually and as a society possessed these attributes.  It is no coincidence that, at the same time, our educational system was the envy of the world.  That is still true of Americans and American society, to a very large extent.  It can no longer be said of our educational system.  If it continues to lose ground as it has been doing, so will we as a society.