Prepared to fail

Most high school graduates in 2005 will go on to college; half will fail to earn a degree of any kind, writes Richard Lee Colvin, director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia. Two-thirds of black and Latino college students do not earn a degree. Unprepared for college, the drop-outs will work sporadically in low-paying, no-benefit jobs, Colvin predicts.

These are the students who met every high school requirement, scoring higher grades than most of their classmates in courses the academic establishment said would prepare them for the future.

That was a lie.

Yes, these students have the required credentials. But they don’t have the skills. They won’t comprehend what they read in college well enough to jump into classroom discussions. They can’t write analytically. They’ll find college-level math over their heads. The California State University system this year required 58% of its freshmen to take remedial classes in math or writing or both, while acknowledging that such classes do a lousy job of helping laggards catch up. In fact, those who take one remedial class are twice as likely to drop out of school, and those who take two rarely finish.

As baby boomers retire, the economy will be seeking to fill 14 million white-collar jobs that require a college education, says economist Anthony Carnevale.

Our current system produces two bachelor’s degrees for every 10 students who start high school, Colvin writes. He suggests some solutions.

About Joanne


  1. Baltimore Joel says:

    Well, I see lots of college grads working at low paying jobs, too. A generic four year degree means little. (Woman’s studies or communication anyone?)
    A four year degree is just a ticket to get get an advanced degree which might actually provide some hope of a decent job. I think we really need to think more about our educational system. Why is it so ineffective?

    Meanwhile, jobs are going begging in some medical fields, like laboratory medicine.

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    We need to differentiate between education for a vocation and education for the evidence of status. I have lost whatever confidence I had in liberal arts grads contributing anything to society worth the resources they consume.
    Doctors, engineers, scientists and EFFECTIVE teachers should be able to repay their education by their professional services, the rest should have to pay out of pocket.

  3. Unfortunately, Mr Colvin’s comments, which may be true, lack sufficient substance. First, Mr Colvin claims that the students who are failing have “met every high school requirement, scoring higher grades than most of their classmates in courses the academic establishment said would prepare them for the future”. This may not be true. First, students who are attending college today are not always the most qualified or highest scorers. Many of the students who are leaving college without a degree may be students who scored in the average or below average in high school, we can’t tell from the article.

    Secondly, it is the college system that has duped students into believing that they can go to college. Today, there are colleges with admissions requirements that are so low that any student, even the least qualified can attend. This is not to say, however, that students are not graduating with insufficient skills, but that we can not ascertain if this is a root cause from this particular article.
    Rather, Colvin’s assessment lacks specific evidence on “why” students fail. Thus, his laundry list of possible solutions from various places are unfounded and misleading. In fact, they address a wide array of possible causes before the causes are well documented.

    There are a myriad of reasons students fail to earn a degree. If we want to change this system we first need to recognize at least the major reasons and then construct plans tht address those issues.

    Lastly, his comment about students in remediation doesn’t prove anything other than a corelation. A cause and effect would be more useful. Maybe students in remedation are more likely to drop out because they are too far behind to catch up effectively. If this is true then two questions must be answered: “How did the students graduate from high school?” and “Why did the University of California admit these students, in the first place?”
    Ansering both of these will at least be a good start on solving this problem.

  4. I’m posting this for Linda Seebach, who’s been rejected by the TypeKey sign-in system for unknown reasons:

    One person in the comments said University of California rather than California State University, but more to the point, Cal State takes only the top third of high school
    graduates; since California’s hs graduation rate is so low, students admitted to Cal State are probably in the top 20 percent or so of their age cohort. If 60 percent of THEM need remedial classes ( and the math remedial classes are
    barely more than ninth-grade level, not nearly enough to take any real college math), what is the remaining 80 percent like?

  5. This is off subject, but I need some advice

    I need some advice. I quit teaching after one year. It was July and I was broke when a job that I had applied for months before offered me the position. I was frustrated with the effort that I had put out during the school year seemed not to have paid off in any way. So I quit and took the job offer. I am ashamed of the way I left my old school. I called my principal and left him a message that I was leaving.

    I want to redeem myself and more importantly I want to go back into the trenches. I don’t do much at my new job and I feel empty not coming home tired having to make lesson plans. I feel that if I apply again to teach no one will hire me when they learn of my past experience. Can someone give me a little advice?

  6. Some students get grades that are FAR higher than their demonstrated performance in the classroom. Some who fall into the above category:
    Students who turn in all homework and complete all projects, but can’t pass a test to save their lives – can we say Mummy or Daddy is doing the work? The difficulty is proving it, although TurnItIn is helping.
    Students who have well-connected parents, who do not hesitate to come in with a belligerent attitude if their Little Snook’ums doesn’t make an A. Many principals fold like a flimsy piece of origami when confronted with a hostile parent who can threaten their job.
    Athletes – how could you be responsible for causing the TEAM to lose?
    Lazy kids with overbearing parents – Winning Through Intimidation.
    Students who have a different ethnic/racial background than the teacher. If you give them an honest grade, you’ve just proven that you are out to get that student because of bias. Of course, there couldn’t be any other reason, could there? This a a VERY hot button with majority teachers in a minority system. If you are ever accused of racism, you’re really screwed – you may even lose your job.
    VERY underprepared students who have somehow made it to high school without being able to read, write, or do math without a calculator. In those cases, can’t you just teach that student all that they should have learned in the previous 8 – 10 years? All the while teaching and managing the otehr 25 – 35 students, of course. Haven’t these parents ever heard of tutoring?

    In all the above cases, it takes a very confident and well-documented teacher to oppose parental and administrative to raise the Little Darling’s grade. Too many teachers fold under pressure. And that’s how colleges get kids who don’t even belong in middle school, who WILL flunk out, unless, of course, the pressure systems still work at the college level.

  7. Obviously, I cna speel well.

    I really do need to remember to check my typing before posting.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Why do we have schools?
    Sometimes a college education can ruin a perfectly good ditchdigger.
    Ditchdiggers earn a respectable wage nowadays. So do carpenters and painters. Plumbers and electricians require the equivalent of a couple of years technical education, but they make good bucks, too, and they can’t be outsourced. Had I stayed an electrician I would be wintering on my yacht off Baja right now.

  9. I apologize for the mistype with the University of Cal vs Cal State. That aside, if Cal State takes the top third and 60 percent of them need remediation then the first question I posed is the key one to answer. How did these kids graduate? The school system apparently has not fulfilled its purpose and the problem with articles like the one in the LA times is that it doesn’t address why these students were not able to learn in high school. We all have ideas, but we need concrete information (research) before proposing various solutions that may or may not work and waste resources. As for the comment about ditch diggers and the previous comment about liberal arts colleges,let me say, we can not reduce education to how well someone can work. The reason is that we have students who would be fine employees ( I see them everyday), but can’t construct a good argument or think critically. We need thinkers and leaders,not just workers,and liberal arts school can serve this function well, but only if students are pushed throughout the system to THINK.

  10. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Years ago, Detroit auto workers had a cavalier attitude about their jobs. They might let a bolt go by without tightening it, goof off and pass obvious mistakes and even sometimes intentionally sabotaging the cars coming by. When challenged, they either said the dealer’s prep was supposed to catch errors, or justified it as a job action.
    Then came the Japanese cars…
    There is a lesson here for teachers.

  11. To equate bolts to people does not quite hold up. People are not as one dimensional–I can’t just “fix” Suzy so she learns or motivate Johnny so he pays attention. I also doubt that many teachers are cavalier about letting students slide–In fact,many teachers I know complain about the system and the lowering of standards.

  12. Having graduated from high school fairly recently, I clearly put the blame on one thing: effort grading.

    Teachers set up their classes so that students who do enough homework and extra credit can do well, even get As, without proving they’ve retained ANY of the information. I had a biology class in which homework was 75% of the grade, lab work 20% of the grade, and tests, including the final, only 5% of the grade! Worse, the homework was graded by items completed per paper, NOT items correct! And the lab work was group work, so even that didn’t require individual knowledge. You could quite literally learn nothing in this class and get an A.

    This class was not the only one structured that way, either. In almost all of my classes, the homework was worth more than 50% of the grade, and in all of those same classes, it was quantity of homework, not quality. It was possible to get As or Bs in these classes even if one’s test average was below 50%. I can see how these kids are appearing in the top third of high school graduates even though their skill levels are pitiful.

    Enemies of high-stakes testing should be dead set against this kind of effort grading as well, since it, more than anything else I can think of, has led to the demand for high-stakes tests. If an A in the course meant outstanding absorption of the material and performance in the course, like it is supposed to, than there wouldn’t be nearly as much of a need to verify what students have learned through high-stakes testing.

  13. Our current system produces two bachelor’s degrees for every 10 students who start high school, Colvin writes. He suggests some solutions.

    Is this something in need of solution?

    We’ve made it possible for nearly everyone to get through high school and now we all complain about diluted standards. With a rigorous matriculation exam, we could bring standards for a HS degree back up, but we have to acknowledge that the graduation rate is going to plunge. Achievement in any human endeavour is a bell curve. We can place the cutoff where we want, but the farther to the right the cutoff goes, the more people to the left of the bar…

    (And yes, it would be those from the poorer end of the socio-economic spectrum that will be most likely to fail. I can’t imagine that it would be much fun to try to motivate students to work in a school with a 10% graduation rate.)

    If we start adopting the sort of standards that some people would like to see in universities, removing or curtailing the soft fields, why would we expect more than 10% to be able to make it through?

  14. John from OK says:

    random thoughts:

    “Remedial writing” at CSU might be the equivalent of “English 1A” in a different university system.

    CSU accepts many middle aged students who take remedial writing and math.

    Any time CSU tries to tighten their requirements, they are met with a wave of race-related protests.

    Dropping out of college is not necessary society’s loss. Most knowledge learned in college is not practical. Instead, grades, awards, and degrees are used to indicate your relative aptitude to prospective employers. Most skills are learned on the job. Most (not all) drop-outs tend to be students who discovered during college that they did not have the aptitude for high-end thought process jobs. Entering college allows society, at a price, to test those student. Leaving college early saves us money.

    No comments on USC. Not today.

  15. “Remedial writing” at CSU might be the equivalent of “English 1A” in a different university system.

    Nope. I’ve got several friends at SFSU who’ve asked me for help with their remedial English work, and it’s really 9th and 10th grade English.

    “We’ve made it possible for nearly everyone to get through high school and now we all complain about diluted standards. With a rigorous matriculation exam, we could bring standards for a HS degree back up, but we have to acknowledge that the graduation rate is going to plunge. Achievement in any human endeavour is a bell curve. We can place the cutoff where we want, but the farther to the right the cutoff goes, the more people to the left of the bar…”

    Tom, the way it used to be, when classroom teachers actually held their students to standards, graduating from high school meant getting over a bunch of little bars like essays and chapter tests. Now that most classroom teachers have abandoned this, students are faced with one HUGE bar, the HS exit exam.

    Quite honestly, it’s not fair to the kids to say that effort counts more than performance. When they get to the exit exam and other high stakes tests, and worse when they end up in THE REAL WORLD, they’re going to find out that the amount of effort they put out is meaningless, it’s the results that count. The school system has the golden opportunity to introduce the kids to the idea that results count very easily. They have 12 years to introduce them to progressively higher expectations and standards. Instead, they keep spouting that effort counts, not performance, and they set the kids up for failure in the process.

  16. When I was in hs (ten years ago) my Chemistry teacher told us that if we turned in a BLANK piece of paper with our name on it for each assignment we would be guaranteed a C (yes, he was serious). I distinctly recall that the boy who sat next to me was taking the class for the third time, after failing out twice – and was well on his way to failing a third time.

    ONCE out of the whole year we needed to do an actual calculation (in CHEMISTRY!!), and he reminded us to “bring your calculators, so it won’t be too hard.” I challenged him on that (outside of class), and questioned if he wasn’t setting some of the students up to fail by convincing them that Chemistry was harder than it needed to be. His response was that it IS hard, and if he doesn’t tell them this in the first place, they’ll get discouraged when they can’t do it. Is it any surprise that half the class ditched on the day the “hard” work was going to be done?

    The textbook wasn’t any better, it dedicated FAR more space to environmentalist whining about how we’ve ruined our planet than actually teaching basic Chemistry. I’m not sure what environmentalism has to do with basic atomic Chemistry – Earth Science, I could see, but Chemistry?

    As a result of wasting an entire year on this pathetic excuse for a course I was TOTALLY unprepared for College Chemistry when I got there.

    On a side note, I was taking AP Calculus the same year, and was forced into this particular Chemistry class by my counselor – even though I tried to register for Honors Chemistry. She told me she didn’t think I could handle Honors Chemistry, so she wouldn’t approve the class for me. The same year, my younger brother (who was taking Trig in preparation for taking AP Calc the following year) was forced into Honors Chemistry by the same counselor. I suppose I should be pleased that at least HE learned something that year.

    Many (thank GOD not all) of the teachers at my high school were like this – and they excused it by pointing to the horrible dropout rate. 25-30% of ninth graders would drop out before graduation. Sound like an “inner city” school? Nope, suburban high school in Salt Lake City, Utah!