The New York Times tells us that "At 2-Year Colleges, Students Eager but Unready". The point here is that many students get through high school but aren't prepared for college, needing remedial classes. 4-year colleges are refusing to accept them, so many are taking to 2-year "community" colleges, making the community colleges little more than 13th and 14th grade, an extension of high school.
Mr. Walton is not unusual. As the new school year begins, the nation’s 1,200 community colleges are being deluged with hundreds of thousands of students unprepared for college-level work. Though higher education is now a near-universal aspiration, researchers suggest that close to half the students who enter college need remedial courses.
But is this new? I don't think so. My high school (and, hey, it's even in Wikipedia) is adjacent to the main campus of Broward Community College. When I was a high school senior in 1974, we derided BCC as "Tinkertoy Tech", and most certainly considered it as 13th and 14th grade. "Real" students went to "real" colleges. The ones who couldn't cut it went to community college. That may be unfair to the community colleges, but it was certainly the perception 30 years ago and more, and it matches what the NY Times is reporting now. So it's not new.
But the real point here is that this article isn't about community colleges: it's about the lack of preparedness of high-school graduates. It's about their lack of preparedness for college, but also their lack of preparedness for life in a high-technology world. When my father finished high school, college was a destination only for those aiming to pursue a career in medicine, science, education... something where an advanced degree was needed or expected. Most graduates went on to "learn a trade" or "be a businessman", and that was fine. When I finished high school, it was expected that most of us would go on to college; the balance had begun to change. Today, most jobs with reasonable pay demand some college, and young adults are at an extreme disadvantage without a college degree. And so we now find that subjects that kids could "just get by" in before are ones they must learn more thoroughly now.
The Times points out that remediation is often needed in mathematics:
Because he had no trouble balancing his checkbook, he took himself for a math wiz. But he could barely remember the Pythagorean theorem and had trouble applying sine, cosine and tangent to figure out angles on the geometry questions....but that it's a problem in all disciplines:
Nearly half the 14.7 million undergraduates at two- and four-year institutions never receive degrees. The deficiencies turn up not just in math, science and engineering, areas in which a growing chorus warns of difficulties in the face of global competition, but also in the basics of reading and writing. According to scores on the 2006 ACT college entrance exam, 21 percent of students applying to four-year institutions are ready for college-level work in all four areas tested, reading, writing, math and biology....and here:
At Cal State, the system admits only students with at least a B average in high school. Nevertheless, 37 percent of the incoming class last year needed remedial math, and 45 percent needed remedial English.
Let's look at math first.
Most of the students expect the transition to community college to be seamless. But the first, and sometimes last, stop for many are remedial math classes. "It’s the math that’s killing us," Dr. McKusik said. The sheer numbers of enrollees like Mr. Walton who have to take make-up math is overwhelming, with 8,000 last year among the nearly 30,000 degree-seeking students systemwide. Not all those students come directly from high school. Many have taken off a few years and may have forgotten what they learned, Dr. McKusik said. More than one in four remedial students work on elementary and middle school arithmetic. Math is where students often lose confidence and give up. "It brings up a lot of emotional stuff for them," Dr. McKusik said."Emotional stuff"? Interesting. I know that kids (well, and adults too) consider math to be hard, boring, unnecessary, or some combination of the above. That was clearly reflected when Talking Ditzhead Barbie came out, and one of her phrases was "Math is hard!" (a phrase that was later removed from her repertoire, after complaints from parents and teachers). So I understand that it's difficult for many. But emotional? That seems a stretch.
In any case, it seems to me that a large part of the difficulty that kids have with math comes from our not separating the basic concepts that everyone has to know from the more abstract things that we'd like to have the kids learn. Everyone needs arithmetic, basic algebra, and basic geometry. More advanced algebra and geometry, as well as trigonometry and calculus, are very good to know, and help in understanding many things about the world, and science, and whatnot... but we should only get into them after the students have a strong grounding in the basics. At least when I learned this stuff, we had a sequence that didn't reflect that. For instance, we learned algebra before geometry, which meant that we got into more involved aspects of algebra before we learned how triangles worked. Most kids could grasp the basics of algebra, needed to make change or figure out what they could buy with the money they had. But they got lost as it got farther from what they could relate to their everyday lives.
That brings us to the question of how much is required, and where remediation is needed. I'm a big fan of a rounded education; I think we should by no means stop at "just enough". At the same time, I'm skeptical about whether a student of theatre or of anthropology should fail to graduate because he can't grasp differential equations — or, for that matter, whether an astronomy major should fail for lack of appreciation of Göthe. It's a difficult balance to reach, giving that well-rounded education while realizing that there are differences in degree among degrees.
What disturbs me more is the number of high school graduates deficient in reading and writing. To repeat a quote from above:
At Cal State, the system admits only students with at least a B average in high school. Nevertheless, 37 percent of the incoming class last year needed remedial math, and 45 percent needed remedial English.45%! That's not all reflecting reading and writing, of course; there's more that goes into "English" than that, and, indeed, fairly few high school graduates are actually unable to read and write. But many can do so only at a very basic level, and our collective literacy level has come down alarmingly over the years. When I watch Civil War documentaries, such as Ken Burns's excellent PBS series, I'm struck by the letters written by the soldiers to their families. Some of these letters were written not by officers educated at West Point, but by privates and corporals with little formal education... and yet they are eloquent and well-written, and often almost poetic. Some can still write in the 21st-century equivalent to that style. Most can not.
We can consider myriad reasons for this. Until the popularity of the Internet, we relied less and less on written language over the previous 100 years. We also relied less and less on reading. Entertainment came over radio and movies, then over television, then through video games. With the rise of the World Wide Web and widespread use of email things shifted back toward reading and writing, and we might think that would have moved our skills back that way too. But the Internet's given us a focus on informal writing, abbreviated text, haphazard grammar, careless (and sometimes intentionally bad) spelling, lack of punctiation, and a minimalism that may succeed in basic communication but does little for the craft of writing or the enjoyment of reading. It seems unlikely that many of today's Internet missives will come across well when Ken Burns's great-great-granddaughter films a documentary about our time, 150 years hence.
But the basic problem is resources. Schools are not teaching students proficiency in math, science, reading, and writing because the schools lack the resources to do it. At the same time as we're bemoaning our loss of world leadership in academics, we're hobbling our educators with reduced funding and increased overhead. Programs such as "No Child Left Behind", rather than holding the schools to account for their lack of success, actually serve only to discourage innovative teaching. A lot has to be done, and it's not as simple as throwing money at it. That said, taking the money we're spending on war, and spending it on education instead... will go a long way toward turning this back around and helping us turn out a well-educated throng of high school graduates, prepared for the 21st century world.
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
Update: see the next day's post for more on the topic of resources for education.