“The Incredibles” load their schedule with AP and honors classes at their private or magnet high schools, get into elite colleges and then discover the work is easy, reports the New York Times. They’ve done college in high school.

“My first two semesters at Brown, I was shopping for science classes, and I would be in a bio class or a chem class and think, ‘I learned this in high school,’ ” says Carly Rush, a Brown junior who graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Alexandria, Va., where “you would know your G.P.A. to the fourth digit” (hers was 3.931).

Ms. Rush’s experience echoes the new reality for high-achieving students: work crazy-hard in high school and cruise in college.

I dropped Western Civ at Stanford after one quarter because I’d read nearly all the reading list in a (suburban public) high school Great Books class and a philosophy class taught by a visiting college professor. In other classes, though, I found the expectations were higher. I couldn’t just write my way to an “A” on every paper or test.

On The College Puzzle, Micheal Kirst reminds us that the Times is spotlighting the exceptions.

Only 5% of students are incredibles or zoomers. About 50% of students are not prepared for college. They are not ready for college and have many student risk factors that reduce college persistence. But the incredibles get much more national media attention. Community colleges, where academic or college readiness is the weakest, get the least media attention.

New York Times editors are likely to be raising high-achieving children or have friends whose kids are “incredibles.” What’s missed are the vast ranks of B and C students who coast through high school and then hit the wall in college. Nobody told them in their 13 years of free education that they weren’t building the skills and knowledge they’d need for college — or a decent job, for that matter.

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  1. I read that article, and I wasn’t that impressed. It’s a university! If a class is too easy, there is a harder and/or more advanced one that they can take instead. To the kid at MIT that found his math and physics classes too easy, I promise that there are courses that you would find challenging. And if the courses are all too easy, you can read with a professor, unless all of the professors know less and are stupider and lazier than the amazing teachers in your wonderful high school…

    I thought that the article was like a lot of the NY Times lately — pandering to the upper class Eastern twits that form their core readership. Either it reinforces their deeply held superstitions (even when it requires the author to make up stuff), or in this case, is sort of porn telling them that they (in the form of their kids) are wonderful in an unprecedented in the history of the world way (and that the $140,000 they spent sending their kids to prep school was worth it).

  2. I have the answers to just about everything including how we can withdraw from Iraq with honor and which religion is the one that God likes best.

    But what to do with high school? Nope. I just don’t know.

    Oh, something else I can’t figure out is the teenage mind.

    Both are probably related.

    In high school, we try to educate everybody, which includes a lot of people who don’t want to be there. That makes for wonderful social development but chaotic education.

    My college story:

    In my first year, my writing skills were so poor that professors asked me if English was my native language. I worked hard but I still got bad grades. That worried the heck out of me.

    But after two years of working hard, very hard, I became an exceptinally good student. I was the best student in each one of my classes.

    But then again, maybe they just lowered their standards.

  3. wayne martin says:

    So why do colleges/universities allow the “incredibles” to take courses that they have already taken vis-a-vis the AP classes? Can’t a computer match up their college prep work against the course selections and disallow the registration? Why wouldn’t the C/U’s not force these kids into Sophomore/Junior level courses based on their high school credits?

    And we keep reading about how college costs keep rising. If these kids are “incredible”, why shouldn’t they expect to get their degrees in two to three years, instead of four, five or six years?

    The comment about the NYT article missing the point seems to be appropriate.

    As to Kirst’s claim that 50% are not college ready .. that seems right. So, if these kids took AP classes, did they pass with high scores, or is this the 50% that didn’t take AP classes, but went on to college anyway? Is Kirst including Community Colleges (which are open admission), or is he only considering 4-year schools?

  4. Kirst, a retired Stanford professor in education and business, has studied all students who go from high school directly to college, including community college.

  5. —So why do colleges/universities allow the “incredibles” to take courses that they have already taken vis-a-vis the AP classes?

    at MIT, the answer is that nearly all of the AP hs courses aern’t anywhere near equivalent to an actual course at MIT. sure, the first two days of a course are review–proving what about week 6 material? most kids scoring a 5 on the ap physics test don’t usually manage to ace 8.01 or 8.012, the basic mechanics and “sophisticated” mechanics courses for freshmen. some do incredibly poorly. some think they know it and are wrong–because they don’t know how to study or think after all. did they show these interviewed kids getting As? or just claiming it;s easy? the profs know better. even most of the incredibles aren’t really prepared that well.

    Some of the kids from tj and stuveysant are coasting in their freshman courses. they could have taken real courses and are choosing not to. how do I know? because you can literally test out of *any* course at MIT. you get that test grade as your course grade, and that test is written for any course you want, given the first day of the term. so if these courses were so easy for them, and these kids were confident that their ap score reflected reality, they’d take the test. so why don’t they? some know or suspect that they don;t really know the material that well, and the others don’t want to work thst hard. why? lots of reasonsm but the biggest is likely because they want to play the “I’m so cool/bright/better than the rest that I don’t study” act, which is a very big thing at MIT.

  6. From my own knowledge and experience of and with the AP, having taken AP courses as a hs student, and having known students who took AP courses and the subsequent exam, the AP courses don’t in and of themselves “prepare” students for college-level work. to the contrary. They are test-driven courses which allow students to earn exemption from entry-level college courses. To me, if so-called “incredibles” truly wanted a rigorous hs experience, they would take bona fide college courses at a reputable college or university in their communities.

  7. Catch Thirty Thr33 says:

    I’m one of those students who graduated high school on the bottom of my class but was prepared for college – in the sense that every test I took in high school indicated I was reading and writing at the level expected of a college graduate. The weak link was math, but once that was dispensed with, college was relatively easy, especially when studying a writing/reading-intensive subject.
    Amazing how one graduates college cum laude yet has atrocious high school grades.

  8. GradSchoolMom says:

    One thing that a college admissions person can not evaluate is how much of a student’s GPA or accomplishments really came from their effort and how much came from their parents. The student most prepared for college work is the one who is there because they want to be and best knows their own strengths and weaknesses. I think the present educational system is causing a larger gap between the “Haves” and the Have Nots” rather than closing it. My observation is that is is extremely difficult for a child to navigate the system if they do not have the team support of both parents behind them. The Incredibles tend to be a group of students with educated parents who help them find the right science project, create beautiful graphics and polish their presentations. Whether the student has any abilities of their own is sometimes hard to distinguish.

  9. Peter Wimsey says:

    While GradSchoolMom’s general point that our educational system is increasing the already not small gap between the Haves and the Have Nots is certainly true, her theory that “the Incredibles” are succeeding because their parents are, basically, helping them with their schoolwork (and thus that their success is not due to their own efforts) is neither supported by the article itself nor reflective of the numerous reasons why children of Haves are able to be academically successful.

    Most of these reasons revolve around the very high value that upper middle class parents, particularly in urban areas, put on education; this comes not from an admiration of education in the abstract, but because the are, in the vast majority of cases, upper middle class precisely because they got into a good college, or got into med school, or law school, or business school. If they didn’t value education in this manner, their kids probably wouldn’t be attending the high schools that they are in the first place. Moreover, the next important enabler that the UMC parents give their kids is the expectation that they will do the schoolwork. Expecations are very important, especially with HS kids – just expecting your kid to do 3 hours of homework (or whatever) a night is a big part of having the kid do it. And similarly important is the fact that the parents enable the kid to do the homework by removing the need for the kid to take a part-time job – which is much easier to do if you buy the kid the clothes he wants, a car (if appropriate) and providing a decent amount of spending money. And of course the assurance that the parents will be able to afford whatever university the kid is able to get into is itself a good motivator.

    “Have not” parents – particularly parents who have not themselves attended college – tend to lack all of these advantages. IME, even quite intelligent kids of parents who never attended college have to overcome a mental hurdle just to believe that they will be able to attend college at all, much less to believe it worthwhile to devote their entire HS existence to taking extra hard classes and fractionally improving their GPA.

    The presence or absence of this type of parental support – much more than assistance in “polishing a presentation” – is what is helping the Haves expand the educational gap.

    Obviously (I hope), the way to close, somewhat, anyway, the educational gap is not by dumming down the higher level courses. There probably is some benefit to beefing up the “average” courses, though.

  10. As a Brown grad myself, I found the quote about the courses being easy kind of silly. Brown’s registration system is extremely lax, with a long “shopping period” and no “core requirements” eating up your time. With the exception of very popular courses, such as studio art, you can get into just about any class you want. My freshman year, I took a mix of intro classes, a language lab, and a few seminars. You also have the option of taking a 5th class without paying extra tuition.

    There are also usually advanced versions of intro classes – for example, the intro to physics course featured four separate yearlong tracks. Physics 1-2 is “physics for poets”, 3-4 is for pre-meds and people who need the basic science to major in other fields, 5-6 is for neuroscience majors and others actually using physics in their fields, and 7-8 is for physics majors. An “incredible” who took AP physics would probably do well to take the 7-8 sequence.

    And, there are opportunities to work at research labs (many of my friends did so, even as college freshmen), take graduate level courses, do an honors thesis, and become a teaching assistant, all as an undergraduate. People who can’t find something to challenge them at a school like Brown just aren’t looking very hard.

    After reading the article I wondered why the kids weren’t just graduating early.

  11. –And we keep reading about how college costs keep rising. If these kids are “incredible”, why shouldn’t they expect to get their degrees in two to three years, instead of four, five or six years?

    –After reading the article I wondered why the kids weren’t just graduating early

    the University of California wondered the same thing. They attempted to solve their overcrowding issuesd by offering more series and core courses in summer school, believing that by assing an extra term, essentially, they’d relieve overcrwding as students finished their degrees in less time. result? kids take summer school and don’t leave any earlier. they use summer svhool to make up deficits in their courses or grades, i.e. the kids are more likely to drop courses that are offered in summer school and retake them in the summer, or lighten their normal term load anyway.

    kids don;t foot the bill for their college ed. either their families do, or subsidized student loans and grants do, so why bother leaving early.

    seriously, don;t you know that college is for doing drugs and having sex? the answer to “why work so hard in hs to blow off college? ” isbecause you lived at home in high school. getting into mit/brown/hstanford gives many more opportunities for the bad behavior with even fewer consequences from adults.

  12. greeneyeshade says:

    I’ve heard this is what happens in Europe and Japan _ work your tail off to get into the “right” university and then coast (which might account for all those demonstrations). Can anyone back me up?

  13. Speaking as one who had a couple of high school years generally harder than college, this is what I did: place out of every class I could possibly (there’s more than just the AP to do this), and then started taking grad-level math classes my sophomore year. Only once did I try to take a class where I already knew the material (a math proofs class), but I got kicked out by the prof who knew I already knew the material.

    If you really want a challenge, there’s always something out there, and it’s not that difficult to find. Nobody’s stopping you from doing your own research projects, trying to write a book, etc. I’m no longer in college or grad school, and I still seek out intellectual challenges. At a certain age, you should stop expecting others to give you the challenges and should be able to find the challenges yourself.

    So this is yet another NY Times article where I think that the motive is the reporter or editor trying to send a message to their own kids.

  14. Catch Thirty Thr33 says:

    greeneyeshade – The reason that happens is because in Europe and Japan the university level is not as challenging (for the most part) as it is here in the United States. This is especially true in Europe.
    As poor as the educational system is in the United States, it has the best university system in the world. In fact I think this is part of the problem with high schools. Instead of seizing high school as the last opportunity to teach students all they need to know to function as critical thinking citizens and employees, and assuming that they will NOT go to college, the emphasis is on assuming EVERY SINGLE STUDENT will in fact go to college, when this is hardly the case. It is as if the teachers in high school want to make no effort to teach the students because, well, they can just go to college and get their education there. So instead of teaching them, why not have them focus more on athletics, extracurricular activities and otherwise having a good time in high school? Academics? That’s what college is for! (Such is the attitude, I fear, on the high school level.)

  15. UIUCGradStudent says:

    “unless all of the professors know less and are stupider and lazier than the amazing teachers in your wonderful high school…”

    The professors at a Top 10 school aren’t stupid or lazy. They’re just too preoccupied with research to bother treating the undergrads with respect and treating the grad students like research automatons. I just feel dirty when I’m told not to hold office hours so I can start a new experiment.