I’m working hard on my next literacy post:
2015-04-05 12.10.40
Meanwhile, this occurred to me on my walk just now, after pondering recent chats with my two kids who are currently in college:

  1. The schedule. No college has any class meet every day; no college schedule requires a student to be in class every hour of the school day. Many classes meet for 2 or 3 hours at a time.
  1. Homework expectations. It is assumed in most colleges that for every hour in class a student is expected to work at least an hour outside of class on reading, writing, research – often more.
  1. Writing. In all but the least demanding colleges, students are expected to write serious academic papers of at least 3-4 pages every few weeks in courses other than Languages or Math.
  1. Online work. In most of today’s college courses, there is a significant online component to the course.
  1. Primary-source reading. The expectation in all courses in the sciences, history, philosophy, and social sciences is that students will have to do some significant primary-source reading (and writing on it).
  1. Close reading. The expectation in all courses is that students know how to read analytically and critically – and take effective notes.
  1. Self-regulation and self-advocacy. Professors will not seek you out if you are doing poorly. The expectation is that you will go for help, find study partners, seek assistance from tutors and special programs, etc. on your own.
  1. Choice. There are hundreds of courses and programs that a high schooler has never heard of, and electives begin in the Freshman year. Students need to be prepared to self-assess, experiment, get inside information, consider their interests and talents, etc. before they face the course catalog for the first time.

These are just off the top of my head. I’d love to hear from college professors – and older parents and recent college graduates – about their own list of how HS does not prepare kids adequately for college. I already know what some math professors will say, from my interview with Steve Strogatz, Math professor (and NYTimes blogger on math): students do not come ready to solve real problems (as opposed to simple textbook exercises.)
PS: Re #1 – many Community College folks note that there ARE courses that meet every day, typically math and foreign language. I stand corrected! (I confess I was generalizing from all the colleges I have known personally or professionally.) But the point remains, most students will not be ready for two hour classes and, especially, time between classes in which to be productive. Many people note that time-management is the real issue here, and thus needed skill – AGREED.
PPS: I am NOT implying nor stating that college is “better” or the be all – end all of what kids should aspire to. I am merely stating the obvious: kids going to college now, believing themselves ready, may be in for a rude shock. (Indeed, the 40% remediation rate is another rude shock about the disconnect). As many pointed out – and I often do, too – college is not a great preparation for life either. But at least a HS kid, going to college willingly, ought to be reasonably prepared for it, no?



53 Responses

  1. I’m not so sure any of this high school prep is necessary. College bound students will always rise to the challenge. The problem is our society is sending everyone to college regardless of their aptitude. Alternatives to college is needed to work in the real world. Perhaps technical schools that don’t cost a fortune.

    • Judy, I think that high school students who are at all likely to go to college (community college as well as four-year) do need prep while in high school.
      But you are right that there should be good alternatives to college — training and education that lead to careers that will provide a good wage or salary. And it is certainly true that a fair number of students who may be intellectually ready for college are not ready in terms of maturity. Taking time off to work or (if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford it) travel or volunteer is a really good idea.

  2. My 10th grader is not doing nearly enough writing in our local public school and I am so surprised. And, I am not talking about analytic writing – he is doing very little writing of any kind. The test prep seems to be focused on content knowledge only.

    • I agree. My older son did way more writing. But, just a few years later- and with the same teacher- my younger son is not doing much writing or reading. Now, he is reading short excerpts of non-fiction material in a textbook primarily. The teacher has moved them on to poetry now. I’ve seen him do one paper this year. I hope they are doing some writing in class but it doesn’t seem like it and my son is not reporting that. It’s disappointing to say the least. Where did reading books go? Where did writing papers go?

  3. I agree with your thoughts, however, should there also be a list of reasons that today’s colleges is poor preparation for career and life? Perhaps the course we should take is found by looking at both lists.

  4. Not only reading primary sources- reading/writing nonfiction & informational (data rich) articles in general. These aren’t just college appropriate skills but career skills as well.

  5. Great post. I taught college for six years before moving (after a long break) to high school (where I’ve been now for 3 years). The main thing I’d add to your list is Quality Writing: my students (I teach grades 7 through 12) seem to have been conditioned to view writing assignments as merely another thing to check off the list. They do not proofread their work, and – if their assignment has a word limit – they stop writing as soon as they reach the word limit and don’t revise anything. As a college professor (humanities), I took for granted that student papers were more or less polished and of high quality. I’m one of two teachers in my school who assigns regular writing projects, and it’s been a long, hard battle (not nearly yet won) to reshape the culture around writing to one where the assignment needs to matter to the student and should reflect a concern with its quality before it gets a “grade.”

    • So important. Writing for me is the key indicator of the quality of HS preparation, college success, and job prospects based on clear thinking as well as writing professionally.

    • I can see that the lack of quality in writing, and the attitude that writing is simply something students must check off a list, as directly related to issues #1 and #2 above – the student day is packed with 6 or 7 different courses and no time to digest or reflect on each subject. There is simply no time to do quality writing in the evenings with so many subjects covered every day. Students have no choice but to fall into the grind of churning out minimally acceptable work – which is a terrible habit for schools to promote.

  6. I would add that many college professors assign work, but do not necessarily collect it or count it towards a student’s grade. Students complete assignments to learn and practice the material. Contrarily, high school assignments predominately count towards the student’s grade. Teachers give points for nearly everything a student produces to the point that students only produce work for the points.

    • And when we don’t “count it,” they don’t do it, and the parents say, “Why should he do it if you aren’t even going to REWARD him for DOING it?”

  7. I’m wondering how well high schools are preparing students with regard to keyboarding. With the number of papers you describe and online work, speed is an effective tool. I’m working on a fix for that in my middle school. Instruction in keyboarding, presentation tools, etc. is key. A weigh-in from you would be a great addition. Thank you!

  8. Here’s a PDF handout with a table of differences between high school and college that I’ve used in a University 101 class, after students generate and discuss some differences on their own: http://www.blackhawk.edu/careertransitioning/pdfs/d_HOW%20IS%20COLLEGE%20DIFFERENT%20FROM%20HIGH%20SCHOOL.pdf
    There are also many differences between high school and college writing: http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/resources/collegewriting/high_school_v_college.htm
    Here are other resources related to “university 101”: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1T0Xi5IZlzUMlTTvmvhl25F87L5in5sD2dJOiDMiZOQw/edit?usp=sharing

  9. Great post, this is so spot on in so many ways. I taught at my state’s (very large, R1) flagship university for a number of years. These students were the top of their high schools academically and still struggled with what college professors consider to be basic skills- things like note taking. In response, the university started a mandatory program to help first year students acclimate to the academic standards of higher education. I think many colleges and universities are starting these types of programs now. I taught in this program before I left higher ed. When I assigned a 3-5 page paper, the students asked if they should use the 5 paragraph model. They couldn’t imagine how they were supposed to write a paper with more than 5 paragraphs.
    One item I would add to your list that is a component of many of your list items is personal organization and time management. Many students are used to someone else managing their schedule and reminding them (repeatedly) of due dates. It’s often a hard lesson to have to figure out how to do that on your own.

  10. I would to see a follow up to this post that gets to the root causes of this gap. Is it the usual complaint of misaligned teacher prep / low expectations / poor curriculum? Is there statutory / regulatory imposition that drives this? Are there structural pieces like rigid hierarchical leadership that allows this to languish?
    I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above and more but what are the most pernicious pieces?

  11. OK, I have a couple of thoughts. First, I do think that there needs to be improvement in high schools but I don’t know that I would consider university as the panacea of good instruction. Just cause colleges do it one way does not mean that is the best way.
    1. Schedule – generally speaking, as kids get older they get more choices. Having sat through classes that are 2 or 3 hours long I would never advocate that for hs. Profs rarely make good use of that time.
    2. Homework – yes, ok but that is also a function of age and maturity. One would expect an increase.
    3. Writing – agreed
    4. Online work – OK, ideally schools would move forward here but this is just not possible. There is a great inequity with access to the internet.
    5 & 6 – yup
    7. Self regulation and advocacy – this is another thing that is a function of age. I would argue that there already is a gradual diminishment of supports here. Also, I don’t think that colleges are right here. Profs should be more involved.
    8. Choice – there is a great deal of choice already in most high schools so I’m not sure what you are getting at.

    • Speaking of preparing students for University. I wonder if the use of long multiple choice exams is still common in University? I have recently spoke to a group of Secondary teachers that insist they should be using multiple choice tests to prepare the students for University. Is the use of multiple choice exams a good use of time to prepare our students for University classes?

        • This is almost entirely course-and-instructor dependent. There is no rule, and it varies in frequency from discipline to discipline, but will be seen in any discipline. Let’s just say that there are many courses that use plenty of multiple-choice. But who cares? I use MC (when I do, which is rarely) to test largely the same skill-set and knowledge as comprehensive questions, but in a different way. MC allows one to cover a broader selection of specific items than a comprehensive question, but less deeply. Necessarily one must have a large number of questions to rule out the possibility that one could do well by guesswork alone, or that one or two errors of sloppy thinking would penalize a student unnecessarily.
          You surely understand that there are really two kinds of course at a university– the general, or service, course, taken by large numbers of students, taught in large classes with help given by hired student TAs, and written in mass exams where we look at thousands of students writing an exam, rather than dozens. In these courses it is common for MC questions to appear, but in math these are still fairly rare. The other kind is the single section course taught by a specialist, and generally either for majors/honours students or a specific crowd from a different department required to take the course for their program. In these courses testing is according to whatever the professor deems appropriate. We regard instructors of such courses as professionals able to make appropriate judgements about such things and there is little interference in their choices as long as they are not extremely divergent from the norms of the disipline. Even in a single course, whether MC forms or doesn’t form a large component of testing varies from year to year.
          I generally like to include a block of 20 (or so) True or False questions on exams I give in courses of the second type. These form a very small but still significant portion of a student’s mark, able to adjust their grade up or down by a letter grade or so. I use TF as a test of understanding, and 90% of the questions I pick for this are standard conceptual errors. I simply use them to test whether or not a student has fallen into one of these typical traps and has wrong thinking about some point of mathematical theory. While you might think “It’s multiple choice with only two choices”, with the kind of question I use I end up with a highly reliable indicator. There is close correlation, over large numbers of students, between their TF score and their score on comprehensive questions. And when a student gets 10 of these TF scores wrong, I can be quite certain that their conceptual mastery of the subject is seriously astray; it is a good way to detect this problem among students who are very adept at “fudging” their way through full-answer questions — which seems to be a skill they pick up nowadays at school: can’t work through to the right answer? Put down all the right formulas and write down a bunch of stuff you’ve seen the instructor or text do so that it “looks right”. It can be difficult to determine whether a student doesn’t understand the material and are a good faker, or they get it but just present their thoughts very poorly. The TF questions are a good way of separating the two types.

  12. “No college has any class meet every day”
    Not true. My applied electronics class meets 5 days a week. MWF for 70-minute lectures, T Th for 3 hour labs. (So students have 9.5 hours a week of class)
    Foreign language classes often meet 5 days a week.

  13. Grant, a couple of factual corrections. 1. Colleges and universities do offer courses that meet daily. For instance, many of NC State University’s calculus courses meet every day, and many sections of freshman English here meet four days a week. 2. Students who are studying one hour outside of class for every hour in class are not studying nearly enough. Two hours out for every hour in is a minimum. Three is better. One-to-one = maybe 30 hours of schoolwork/week = part-time job.
    I disagree with you on the point about scheduling — this is not an area where high schools has to do the same as colleges. Daily classes may be just what younger adolescents need to learn well. As an advisor for first-year undergraduates, I wish more college classes met more frequently, because lots of people learn better in smaller chunks. A longer less frequent class period is ok if the teacher chunks it into manageable pieces, but just as in K-12, not every teacher follows best practices.
    I’m in agreement on your other points.
    And, a bit of a self-serving plug here: students should get connected with their advisor. Many institutions have advising programs for freshmen — seek them out.

    • As a former student at NC State I had the same reaction when I read the article, and also agree with your point about scheduling not necessarily being wrong on the high school side.
      What I’d like to address is your last sentence. I had a great freshman advisor and she was one of the few people I was confident in talking to about my coursework and path. Unfortunately, at least when I was at NC State, sophomore year means you lose the single advising session and are put into a room with 30 other kids to a couple advisors and they just lay out a few things in a powerpoint that pretty much amounted to ‘sign up for the classes you need, job done’. For me, it was pretty much all the information I already knew and learned while signing up for classes the first couple semesters, so it was basically useless. It was almost as if making it through your first year meant you would be fine on your own, regardless of what your needs might be.
      So while using the advising program can help a student one year, if the student starts to rely on that relationship too much, the next year it might feel like the rug was pulled out from under them. If you want students to use and trust your resources more then perhaps do better keeping your end of the bargain, as older students and younger students do talk outside of class.

  14. ” It is assumed in most colleges that for every hour in class a student is expected to work at least an hour outside of class on reading, writing, research – often more.”
    Our standard course calls for 3.5 hours a week of class time and 11.5 hours a week outside class, but students often feel put upon if their outside-class time comes to more than 5 hours. A lot of the humanities faculty have caved and been happy with seeing any work outside class, with the result that humanities students are basically only half-time students, while engineering faculty have held the line and keep the workload where it is nominally supposed to be. The result, of course, is that the failure rate is higher in engineering classes, and administrators complain about our students not finishing in 4 years, as if “finishing” was the sole purpose of education.

  15. Our high school requires use of primary sources in at least 2 3-5 page papers. That’s the minimum. Common Core Standards are focused on literacy: close reading, note taking, citing evidence from the text, informational and expository texts, etc. Those states and districts that are working toward Common Core compliance are giving teachers time to work on strategies for teaching CCSS.
    It’s not universal yet, but online components are expanding: the use of SchoolLoop to turn in assignments, Turnitin.com for all papers (including Physics!), multiple levels of the same paper: peer edit, teacher draft (graded) and a final turn in, not graded by the first teacher.
    We need to do a better job of teaching self-advocacy, and providing career and vocation exploration.
    Your list is a good reminder – a benchmark to look at how we are, or are not, preparing students for college and career. Thank you for your work!

  16. I would be interested in a quick poll.
    How many readers found there first year or two of college easier (not to say it was not different) than high school?
    I certainly did.

  17. I agree with the list your list. Another thing I find (I’m a college prof) is that students don’t really know how to ask questions. Or perhaps they’ve been conditioned not to ask them. Or: they’ve not done the reading and so feel like their questions would be stupid, etc. I find that very young kids, mostly, have no problems asking questions. At some point (adolescence, maybe?), they either stop caring (perhaps we’re not doing enough to interest/engage them) or they simply become more worried about how they’ll look if they admit they don’t know something. My subject is philosophy, and I find that a lot of what I’m trying to get them to do (besides read and write better and more critically) is to learn how (and what) to ask when they don’t understand something. And of course: even recognizing that they don’t understand something is a skill that is insufficiently developed in many of them.

    • Having taught philosophy at a good HS, I agree with you that they do not start out asking questions – for fear of seeming stupid. In fact, many really interesting questions get prefaced with “I know this sounds dumb, but…” Have a look at our book on Essential Questions which not only includes suggestions on how to improve our questions as educators but how to establish a comfortable collaborative spirit of inquiry in the classroom, with some great resources on discussion.

  18. From what I have seen in practice, our high school teachers are doing an excellent job with out students. The problem, to me, begins in elementary school. Students are graduating elementary with few skills in mathematics (sharing my viewpoint, although there may be other areas affected as well). To give you an example, many students do not have their basic math facts memorized by grade 9. This cripples our students in mathematics throughout their entire high school career.
    So, to me, the major issue is that our high school teachers are having to face the challenge of teaching the elementary school curriculum in addition to the high school curriculum, which is an impossible task. Of course, our high school students will be ill-prepared for college/university level mathematics.
    Perhaps we should be focused more on the elementary school structure rather than the high school structure.
    (Most of this information comes from an open dialogue between select universities and concerned high school mathematics teachers in Canada.)

    • I think your complaint is legitimate, but it doesn’t really address the disconnects I mentioned in my piece. Nor does it explain why a K-12 system isn’t really a system – which is another key question.

      • Hi Grant, I think you are missing the point in your reply here. The problem with students being unable to engage with critical thinking and complex questions in university has little to do with whether they are expected to do so in HS. K-12 is not “mini-university” any more than university is a simple extension of High School. The reason people have difficulty with complex problem solving is because they are lacking foundational knowledge and skills. The best way to exacerbate this and make the problem as bad as possible is to further weaken foundational (basics) teaching and replace it with more and more pretend critical thinking skills, as we see being continually proposed by (I grant) well-meaning educationalists to teachers nowadays.
        I teach university math. There is a pretty solid consensus among university math instructors that a student well-grounded in algebra, functions and graphs will not only “survive” our calculus courses — they will prosper and under our tutelage and the rigours of expectations for independent work and the complex problems to which they are exposed, they will develop that independent, critical thinking that everyone values so much. Students who come lacking basics are uniquely disqualified from any of the above — they will not survive, unless they get help, and if they do not receive such help prior to entry at a university, experience says they have a low probability of survival.
        The other side of the formula … the life skills, self-reliance and work ethic, will of course stand them in good stead, and schools would be good to inculcate these things, particularly near the end of high school. These can be gained at university, but at great personal cost. It is full immersion in a cold pool to be expected to develop that kind of maturity simultaneously with the workload and abstraction they get loaded with.
        We often get mature students who are 3, 4 or more years into post-high school work and have decided to come back to school. These kids generally come scared: they generally did not like school, which is why they went straight into work, and have forgotten much of the math they had mastered. But they come with a seriousness and an understanding of the cost of success when you must rely on your own resources. If this gets combined with effective front-loading of skills (be it by personal review or seeking out assistance in “boning up”) many of these students survive and thrive, and outperform their more talented peers who came straight in from High School, but who do not have the same life skills.

  19. This is a great discussion topic and an issue I’m quite familiar with. I am a university math professor in Canada and have been teaching at the university level for about 15 years. I teach introductory calculus every year so I’ve had the chance to witness the preparation level of incoming students over many years. I also recently surveyed about 225 first-year calculus students about this topic.
    There are two main areas that contribute to preparation for university (or lack thereof): “cultural” issues and academic preparation. Most of the points you discuss above involve the former. From your list, I would say that 2. (homework expectations) and 7. (self advocacy) are the problems I see the most. University classes move very quickly and students don’t often realize that if they let things slide for a week that they may not recover. (By the way, I tell my students that to receive an A, they should expect to do about 8 hours of homework outside of class per week. We meet for 3 hours each week.) Students with really strong study skills who seek out help when they need it are definitely at an advantage! In Canada, class sizes in intro calculus range from about 60 students to about 250 students (or more) per class. Many profs won’t notice if a student misses class and won’t be looking over students’ shoulders to make sure they’ve done their homework. Students need to look out for themselves and go to class regularly, do their homework without being pushed, recognize when they need help and get help when they need it.
    I give online homework regularly. This is not an area my students have difficulty with. They’re quite comfortable with online components of my courses.
    On the survey I gave students, I asked open questions. Example: In your opinion, is there anything that could be done differently at the high school level to better prepare you for university calculus? The students I surveyed did indicate that they wished they’d been given more homework in high school and that higher expectations at the high school level would have better prepared them for university. They also complained about calculator use in high schools (we don’t allow calculators in our intro math classes). However, the top suggestions had to do with inadequate academic preparation. Not problem solving, but difficulties with algebra, trigonometry, logarithms and exponential functions. (Note that I’m talking about the group of introductory calculus students who have all been required to take a precalculus course in high school for entry into the calculus course.)
    From my point of view, weak algebra skills are the number one factor that contribute to difficulties in introductory math classes (trigonometry, etc are also a problem but algebra shows up in about 80% of the work we do in intro math). Many students have difficulty factoring, cannot solve quadratic equations, cannot simplify rational expressions, etc. This makes it nearly impossible to do limits, integrals, etc (and certainly a student who has difficulty solving an algebra problem will also have difficulty with problem solving!). A student really needs to be very fluent with these things to understand what is being taught in their introductory math classes at university. It is very difficult for us to fix this prior knowledge problem because it takes hours of practice for students to get good at these things and they should have acquired that practice before they got to university. We have talked to high school teachers about this and they are facing a similar problem – students entering high school without the prior knowledge to learn high school topics (difficulty with fraction arithmetic, etc).

    • Here’s the thing… They practice algebra, nearly endlessly, for 3 of the 4 years of high school.
      It’s not the amount of practice.
      It’s that as soon as they stop practicing they forget it.

  20. “Writing. In all but the least demanding colleges, students are expected to write serious academic papers of at least 3-4 pages every few weeks in courses other than Languages or Math.”
    I think there is an important conversation to be had here that makes people very uncomfortable and actually circles back to a problem with the way the colleges and universities prepare teachers…
    How many non-language arts teachers are actually trained to teach, assign and grade writing? In my experience as a high school English teacher, the answer is not many. Those that do attempt to assign writing often say things like “This does not need a works cited page, that is your English teacher’s problem,” or “I’m grading this for content, not grammar.”
    There has been much debate with the introduction of the Common Core with teachers of “content” areas (which is a misnomer… as though English itself is not a content area) who feel that teaching writing is “not their job.” Some of that negativity, I have to believe, is not just unprofessionalism and has to be partly the fear that comes from being told to do something you just don’t know how to do. My argument in response to these teachers is always that if a student wrote a beautiful essay for my English class about George Washington being the first president of China, I would most certainly have something to say about that, even though I’m not a history teacher.
    Until schools and teachers really believe that literacy is the responsibility of EVERYONE, this particular deficiency won’t change.

    • I totally agree with your concerns and your dictum in the last sentence. This is of course what Common Core is trying to foster – somewhat successfully in places. A good place to begin is with history departments meeting with English depth to hammer out agreements on genres, joint assignments, at least joint rubrics. Heck, we did that 40 years ago when I taught HS.

  21. Yes! and Yes! and thank you very much!
    I think that this gets at some of the high school problems. We drag kids through high school by their noses sometimes. We have to stop. Kids enter high school around age 14. We need to treat them like young adults as far as respecting their time and letting them lead the way.
    Here are a couple additions to your list:
    1. SYLLABUS- College courses typically give you a very organized syllabus with the dates and topics for each class along with the assignments, textbooks/books, materials needed, how grades are computed and due dates at the beginning of the semester. High school one the other hand gives you a supposed syllabus that simply has the class behavior rules, punishments for breaking them, a general overview of the subject at hand, contact info for the teacher, and maybe a partial list of texts/books to be read. If we want kids to be organized, they ought to know when papers are going to be assigned and due. They ought to know dates for tests, etc. Instead, they are sometimes informed only days prior. It’s written on the chalk board. If they blink, they miss it. Some teachers are great about posting it early and online. Some are not.
    2. Materials- In college, you are to buy/get your books at the start of the course. Now, there are exceptions when one must pick up something added during the semester, but for the most part- you have all your material and are ready to learn. In high school, you often do not know you will be ready “The Glass Menagerie” until a week before. Parents have to scramble to get it. It’s not just inconvenient. It sets you up for the course. You can read and plan as you can. It respects your time.
    3. In college, you are allowed to go to the bathroom without having to get your agenda/calendar signed, get a hallpass, check in your cell phone, and risk being told “no”.
    4. There are no worksheets to complete for homework.
    5. There is no standardized test to take.
    6. There is no “test prep” and no workbooks solely assigned to practice the test.
    7. Graduation is hinged on successfully passing your courses and (depending on the college) a comprehensive test or research. In high school- new hoops for passing are added each year which seem arbitrary and nonsensical. It’s not about a program of learning in high school as it is in college. It’s about jumping through hoops.
    8. Your four years in college are spent delving into a subject matter of your choosing (your major). You have time to really dwell on and explore it. In high school, again, it’s jumping through some hoops that were selected by some dudes in your state capital and there is no dwelling time. Courses are “gotten over” in high school.
    9. Fences are erected to keep “bad guys” out. But, they end up being used to also keep students in at high school. There is no open campus. Students get in trouble for leaving without an excuse that is decided is acceptable. Students that are caught leaving are disciplined.
    10. You are not allowed to change courses in high school. There are too many difficulties for administrators so they only allow changes if the level of the course is not appropriate. In college, you add and drop for no penalty for the first week or so. They respect that a student may not realize the scope of a course until they are actually sitting in the classroom and may need a change. And you can get a “W” up to 1/2 way through the college semester- having an out if you are over your head in a too hard course. In high school, you have to get an F.
    11. There are “black out” dates for field trips in high school due to the testing calendar. No such thing exists in college.
    These are just off the top of my head. We do not give any room for high school students to take over their own learning in school when we treat them in an “institutional” type controlled manner. It’s a wonder any are motivated.

    • Great comments. I have been arguing endlessly for public syllabi in HS with complete clarity about course goals and the materials for achieving them. Success, not so much, alas…

    • Every teacher has to have a syllabus. Our admin has to approve it. Also, there haven’t been chalkboards in high schools for about 15 years. As much as we’d love to have flexible scheduling, we can’t. It’s not because administration has difficulties. It’s because the school is publicly funded by ADA and once they create a master schedule, they can’t change one class without affecting the entire thing. It’s more complicated than it seems to an outsider. We can’t afford to have the schedules we want. It’s the law that kids have to be in school, and if they leave without permission, WE are legally responsible/accountable. THAT is why we have build the fences. If students jump fences, well, we took reasonable precautions to keep them safely in school. Parents never have to scramble to buy books in a public high school. A public education has to be free. We can’t even require you to buy a pencil, much less a book (though all of our books are in the public domain and available as free PDFs – in English, anyway).

  22. These all ring true for me as a teacher of freshmen at a large public university. As you pointed out, they are probably very difficult to accomplish in a typical high school environment.
    One question though: The post implies that the gap between high school and college is greater now than at some point in the past. I am not sure that is true, and would like to know if today’s students are really less prepared than previous generations. Are they less prepared, or are we just more willing to blame teachers for students’ inabilities?
    Here is an example from my own undergraduate experience at the University of California in the 1980s. Fifty percent or more of freshmen failed intro courses in math and science. These were supposedly the best high school students in California. Both my brother and I took remedial courses. This was never seen as a failing of our high school, which was in fact an elite private school for its time and place. My weaknesses were seen as normal, and remedied through additional coursework.
    It seems to me that what has certainly changed is that once a high school degree was a terminal degree. It was supposed to represent the culmination of education and preparation for citizenship. Some students did go on to a new kind of education in college. Now most of us seem to expect high schools to be preparation for college. Remember when college prep was a particular, unusual kind of high school?
    If I am correct here, then the real question is: What is the goal for high school teachers? Should it be to teach high school, or to teach college prep? If the latter, lets acknowledge that and help high school teachers and students to accomplish this major shift in the intent of high school. But should we also talk about what is lost when we give up the idea of high school degree as an accomplishment, a culmination, a preparation for life in its own right?

    • Matthew: I didn’t mean to imply that the gap has gotten worse in the short term. It’s not much different than it was when I started teaching 40 years ago. However, it has gotten somewhat worse in that high school has backed off electives, open campuses, more homework and writing to some degree. Regardless of then vs, now, my point is that now is pretty bad but little is occurring beyond the standards movement to worry about it. High school IS college prep for the majority of classes and schools. The loss of electives and voc. tech programs only exacerbates the issue. Nor do I think we give up anything by saying the HS diploma is a significant rite of passage: it was for me, and I went to a prep school.

  23. As a Junior High teacher (7th and 8th grade), I’d like to agree with those of you who have pointed out the lack of fundamental skills amongst our students. In my school district there is a heavy emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving that keeps moving lower and lower down the grade levels.
    I teach Language Arts and Social Studies, and most of my students come to me without basic knowledge of things like parts of speech and what constitutes a complete sentence. The Algebra and Geometry teachers complain of the same problems with students who rely entirely on calculators and can’t do basic arithmetic in their heads.
    Our principals and superintendents actively discourage direct instruction of grammar and mechanics, which baffles me. You cannot learn complex skills without having a solid foundation in basic skills, no matter the subject. I would not teach someone how to play basketball by simply throwing them into a scrimmage; why should I teach someone how to read and write by throwing them into a complex novel or debate without preparation?

  24. As a parent of a Junior in a large Texas school district, I believe one of the biggest challenges our daughter will face will be time management with regard to homework. Our school district uses block scheduling. Thus, most classes meet every other day (except sports of course because they are more important). One of the challenges we have seen as parents is that our daughter’s teachers don’t want to lecture for an hour and half. Thus, they lecture for about 45 minutes and then allow them to work on homework. She rarely has homework, and we have serious concerns about the implications this will have at the collegiate level.

  25. Just a though on point #7, about the need to seek out help in college, find study partners, etc. I teach part-time at a university and full time at the high school level. I am continually dismayed at how little effort my COLLEGE students make at seeking out help from myself or other sources. So while high schools could do a better job at getting students more ready for college and the grit and determination they should have to help themselves learn, I wouldn’t say colleges succeed at that much better than high schools. So if it is a “teachable skill” I’m not sure how to get that across to students at ANY level, even when they are paying out of their own pocket (or mom and dad’s) for it. The difference seems, to me, to be that in college the students that “can’t hack it” drop out and we forget about them. In high school they fail our state mandated tests and we get nailed for not teaching them well enough.

  26. I think that self-motivation and longhand writing skills are the two most important KAS features necessary for (and missing from) successful secondary school preparation for college. I solved this problem by seeking out the very best textbooks, giving them to my kids in September, and telling them to, “learn this.” For example, AP biology Campbell’s (original, not dumbed down for cc) is huge, thick, and challenging. The student needs to figure out how many chapters he can reasonably learn in a week while prepping for the AP exam in early May. Lots of executive function, calendar making, and chapter test writing is necessary. I also plop down a few large spiral notebooks and 3×5 cards. I expect to see chapter summaries, diagrams, and questions emerge onto the spiral bound notebooks. They do. I also expect to see a “5” on the AP test. I don’t do anything except answer questions and think of fun little experiments, essays, or projects to add. When students are “spoon fed” they will never learn how to get the information for themselves. That is why I don’t lecture. I also expect all the notes in longhand. The neuroscience folks have soundly proven that this strategy links the info snugly into the brain. You want the 5? Get it yourself. Problem solved.
    I also feel that current high school curricula place a great deal of emphasis on filling in online answer sets and pseudo-syllabi (google classroom, etc) that is truly misplaced and damaging. I never used online stuff except for the occasional youtube tutorial. However, I have tutored kids who were struggling with their difficult high school classes only to find that they were basically doing nothing but online Q&A sets and looking up the answers, which were always available with a quick google search. How stupid is that? Cut, paste, click. Plus, we already know that typing notes is not effective for learning and retention. Plus, we also are pretty sure that social media is always running open right behind that screen, enabling all of the internet addict kids. My solution is always to cut the wifi, confiscate the laptop, and plop down the big book with spiral bound notebooks. Works every time. For the addicts, no power until the notebook is full.
    Anyway, my magical solution to everything is turning off the power and having kids read a bunch of stuff. And when they are younger, let them read literally anything. My kid wanted to read video game manuals? Be my guest. Being fully active as a reader and an active learner is the real secret to it all. Passive = doodles all over the page = zero comprehension or retention.
    Not everyone can be a 100% self-motivated and active learner at the secondary school level, but this must be encouraged as much as is developmentally possible for each student. Let students read a lot. Make reading the primary activity of early grades. I think that the comprehension strategies come with note taking out of the book when you are talking about challenging non-fiction. And don’t make literature into an excruciating ordeal. Let them read the books first, don’t ruin it with the “read five pages and answer questions about some obscure symbolism”. Chances are very good that they won’t want to read the next five pages tomorrow.

  27. I am printing this list and some of the comments as a discussion for my senior English class. Perfect topic

  28. I teach in my own private school. Elementary through high school in one “little red school house”. On Monday, I teach math. Tuesday is history and grammar. Wednesday is science and reading… and so on. My students learn to ask for help on other days if they need it. They learn to self-pace because the work is due the following week. They learn to research beginning in the 1st grade (small things at first) and they write in almost every class. I think they will be quite ready for college. I have a high schooler who cooks and sews for class because this is her interest. Another works at the local barn, taking care of horses and learning from the vet, farrier, blacksmith, and barn manager.
    I wish more programs would allow this type of scheduling.

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