What to do about unskilled college students

Many college students can’t do math or read well, write Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman on Minding the Campus.

Estimates of those needing remedial classes before taking credit courses range from 30% of entering students to 40% of traditional undergraduates. . . .

A 2004 U.S. Department of Education study reports that 42% of freshmen in public two-year institutions need remediation.

. . . More than half of all college students will not earn a degree or credential, according to a 2009 Gates Foundation report drawing on national education statistics. For community college and low-income students, it notes, the numbers are much worse.

What to do? Teaching college skills to college-bound high school students would seem like an obvious answer.  But Stotsky and Wurman fear a push to change college coursework to be doable by the minimally skilled.

The Gates Foundation . . .  faults our post-secondary institutions for not having “responded to their students’ increasingly complex and diverse needs.” One goal of Gates’ Postsecondary Success Initiative is to make both curriculum and instruction at the post-secondary level “more effective and engaging” by integrating technology into instruction, redesigning entire courses, and “contextualizing” these courses “to match students’ field of interest.”  Details are lacking, but this seems to mean that academic degree programs would be versions of programs now offered in vocational technical high schools, the kind of schools these students should have had the opportunity—and encouragement—to enroll in.

Raising high school expectations would not increase the dropout rate, they argue.  Massachusetts, which has the toughest standards in the nation, reduced its dropout rate by 12 percent in 2008, they write.

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  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Please colleges do not lower your standards…please government/default K-12 schools raise yours…please get off this kick that college is needed for all students..it never has been and never will be…geez…

  2. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Yet when I would tell my dumbass ASSistant principal that I was trying get my senior students ready for college she kept telling me that they’re not in college. So I had to treat them like middle school students, apparently.


  3. I see too many worksheets in high school classes. I don’t think college classes have worksheets? It’s been a few decades since I was in college, so who knows.

    I do know that my seniors want me to give them all of the answers and tell them exactly what to do. When I tell them that won’t be happening in college, they tell me this isn’t college and they’ll do just fine when they do get to college…and most plan to walk two blocks over to the community college from which we graduate few students.

  4. Ex-Physics Teacher is right about the bosses. It’s really starting to dawn on me that these guys and their absolutely wrong-headed prescriptions are doing immense damage to our schools. Think about it: they are, by and large, failed teachers, men (and some women) who are inherently anti-intellectual and uncurious, who crave power and status above truth, and who, lacking a robust liberal arts education, have their heads filled with the gobbledy-gook ginned up by other failed teachers (ed professors and consultants) whose ideas come straight out of their, um, butts… or from business and self-help literature. Hard for a lay person to believe, but these guys often have no clue what’s good for the schools.

  5. And Ben F is right as well. We were having similar discussions at a staff party not too long ago, and the conclusion was that taking educational administrators from the rank of teachers does not always work in the modern setting.

  6. I’ve been saying it for years – the rot starts at the top. Good administrators = good schools. Bad administrators can undo the work of the best teachers.

  7. Student of History says:

    Do you think the ability to get masters and even Ed.D’s by attending classes one day a month for a couple of years and with no required dissertation makes problems with administrators worse?

    You then have a power hungry, inexperienced former teacher who insists everyone call him or her “Doctor”. The degree gives a presumption of knowledge that then gets rebutted anytime they speak on an issue.

    I worry that the solid experienced teachers will leave rather than have such a boss.

  8. “Please colleges do not lower your standards…please government/default K-12 schools raise yours…”

    Too late. That process started back in the 80s (maybe before that). As a Prof of 30 years, I started noticing the difference in 1985. It has only worsened since that time. With the colleges’ hunger for and addiction to money, it will only worsen over time.

  9. It’s always dicey for college instructors to compare their students to themselves. We, after all, are the cream of the crop (supposedly…) and by definition are exactly the sort of people who took school seriously and wanted to succeed at it.

    So I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that my current college students are nowhere near as skilled as I was when I was in 11th grade. I rather expect most of them, now in college, to have learned far less than I did at that point in my life.

    No, the sad fact is that my current students — students who are at what is ostensibly one of the top large universities in the United States — are by and large nowhere near as skilled as most of my friends were in 11th grade, either. And I don’t mean just the three or four top students in my class… I mean a wide range of honors students at a rather mediocre high school. I could go probably fifteen or sixteen people deep in the (approx. 32 student) population of my 11th grade honors English class who could (at that age) utterly wipe the academic floor with over 95% of my current college-level students. That’s not to say that my high school peers were smarter, just that they knew more then than my students do now, and were years ahead in their ability to read and write than my students are now.

    Of my students, I would say that the number who are minimally prepared for college-level work in terms of their reading and writing ability is somewhere around 15%, with perhaps 5% who are really top flight students. That’s fifteen percent who have the practiced skill necessary to read the amounts of text needed, to process its meaning, and to turn that meaning into something readable, perhaps while injecting something original into the mix.

    Have skill standards changed that much in just twenty years? It makes me feel like a grouchy old man. But I know what I’m seeing.

  10. They’ve already dropped standards. You don’t even need to take math to get a Berkeley humanities degree, unless you got below 600 on the SAT (read minority admits, for the most part).

    The problem is that not everyone should go to college, obviously.

  11. Mike Curtis says:

    Remove all “learning tools” that require electric power. As soon as you allow a student to watch something happen instead of teaching them how to make something happen, you’ve given up on teaching. Analyzing videos, instead of analyzing printed text, takes away students’ responsibility to think about the subject at hand.

    The moment you allow students to use calculators for basic mathematics, you give them permission to not memorize facts. Something or somebody else has to take the responsibility for being the collective memory.

    In a nutshell, if you can’t teach a student how to read, write or cipher to at least the 8th grade level, using only a dirt floor and a sharpened stick, then you’re not a teacher…you’re a babysitter collecting a salary under false pretenses.

    It’s the public’s desire, the creed that says credentials are more important than achievement, that sets the stage for lowered standards. It’s the educational institution’s fault for trying to accommodate mediocrity. Education is a business to some, but to all, it must set minimum acceptable standards, and enforce them, to establish credibility. My argument is not how high or low the standard should be set…only that it be established and supported.


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