If high school is easy, college is hard

Valedictorians from low-performing Washington D.C. high schools are poorly prepared for competitive colleges, reports the Washington Post.

Nearly two-thirds of the District’s high school graduates enroll in college: 37 percent of D.C. students who go to college complete a four-year degree in the six years after graduating from high school.

Top students can get into top colleges, but then they’ve got to pass their classes.

(Sache) Collier, the 2011 valedictorian at Ballou Senior High in Southeast Washington, said the first thing she noticed when she arrived at Penn State University was how intently her fellow students paid attention during class.

“It was like, ‘Wow, everyone’s on the same page and everyone wants to learn,’ ” Collier said. “At Ballou, it wasn’t like that at all. I was always trying to get the students quiet.”

Collier had been a star at Ballou, where fewer than one-quarter of students are proficient in math and reading. But she said that her classes largely dealt with the basics: summarizing story plots, for example, and learning how to write complete and grammatically correct sentences.

Only in her senior year, in an advanced English course, did a teacher challenge her to think more deeply. “I feel like it was too late,” said Collier, who took two of the three AP classes she said were available to her at Ballou. “It just wasn’t enough to have that kind of teacher for one year.”

In her first semester at Penn State, Collier was surprised by professors’ expectations. She’d done little writing and no research in high school. She earned a 2.1 grade-point average, but raised it to a 3.38 by the end of sophomore year by using writing tutors and consulting librarians and professors. “I’m not the type of person to give up,” Collier said.

Seth Brown, valedictorian at Wilson HIgh, took 11 AP courses, passed five exams and got into Dartmouth. But he was “overwhelmed” by two five-page writing assignments — longer than any assignments he’d completed in high school — in his first semester. “I didn’t even know where to start,” said Brown, a rising senior at Dartmouth.

These students persisted. Many give up.

Is literature necessary?

Never Mind Algebra. Is Literature Necessary?  English teacher Tim Clifford, not a fan of Common Core standards, asks the question on the New York Times‘s Schoolbook.

English teachers already have given up on teaching spelling, vocabulary, and grammar, Clifford complains. Creative writing has been “replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.”

Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.

Until last year, his sixth graders conceived, wrote and illustrated a 20-page graphic novel, learning “story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Now, as a result of Common Core standards, they must write an eight-page research paper, “filled with facts but devoid of imagination.”

The Common Core has already veered many schools away from narrative writing, or almost any type of creative writing at all. So what’s left to be picked from the remains of English study?


Starting this year, at least half of all reading in our schools is supposed to be non-fiction. And that includes kindergarten.

What makes matters even worse for later grades is that students already read non-fiction almost exclusively in all their other courses, so if you take science, social studies, and math into account, only one-eighth of student reading will be literary. And that fraction is likely to shrink in the future.

If algebra is dispensable, why not Austen? Clifford asks. Both can be difficult for some students: Graduation rates might rise if students didn’t need to struggle with algebra or Austen. Neither is essential for most jobs.

AP pilots classes on research, writing skills

Two new Advanced Placement courses will teach research and writing skills, reports College Bound. College Board and Cambridge International Examinations developed the pilot program.

The AP/Cambridge Interdisciplinary Investigations and Critical Reasoning Seminar will be offered in 11th grade. Students will work in teams to research and write topics of global relevance. Each school can choose its own topic and pair different disciplines, such as history and English.

The AP/Cambridge Capstone Research Project taken in 12th grade involves writing a 4,500 to 5,000-word paper that will be evaluated on the students’ ability to design, plan, and manage a research project, analyze information, and communicate their findings.

The new courses aren’t designed to replicate a college course, so there’s no exam. However, students who pass the two courses and earn a 3 or better on three AP exams will earn the Capstone Credential certification.

Good teachers, low value-added scores

At a very high-achieving Brooklyn elementary school, the fifth-grade teachers posted low value-added scores, writes Michael Winerip in the New York Times. They’re a talented, hard-working group, says the principal. So what happened?

Though 89 percent of P.S. 146 fifth graders were rated proficient in math in 2009, the year before, as fourth graders, 97 percent were rated as proficient. This resulted in the worst thing that can happen to a teacher in America today: negative value was added.

The difference between 89 percent and 97 percent proficiency at P.S. 146 is the result of three children scoring a 2 out of 4 instead of a 3 out of 4.

. . . In New York City, fourth-grade test results can determine where a child will go to middle school. Fifth-grade scores have never mattered much, so teachers have been free to focus on project-based learning.

If Winerip’s theory is correct, all of New York City’s fifth-grade teachers should have low value-added scores. Or perhaps there’d be an effect only in schools with students who care about getting into a good middle school.

Update: Winerip provides an example of creative teaching:

Using the new curriculum, children work in groups to solve real-life problems. On Friday, each group spent an hour developing a system to calculate who ate more — eight students sharing seven submarine sandwiches; five students sharing four; or four sharing three. Each child developed his own solution, and the group decided which way was best.

. . . This week, students will advance from dividing sandwiches to comparing fractions with different denominators, to calculating least common denominators.

In another fifth-grade class, students have spent weeks writing research papers on the Mayans. Students might score higher, Winerip suggests, if they drilled on writing essays for tests: Write a topic sentence, three sentences that support the thesis with examples from literature, current events and personal experience and a concluding sentence.

I spent my entire high school career writing topic sentences supported by subtopic sentences supported by three “concrete and specific” details. And I wrote a report on the Mayans in sixth grade. Writing research papers and learning to support a thesis with examples are not incompatible.

If Winerip is correct about the numbers — if it’s possible for 89 percent of students to score proficient and the teachers to look like losers — then the value-added system is not reliable.

What Elroy Jetson needs to learn

We can’t predict the future, but we can teach “timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper. She doesn’t think much of Virginia Heffernan’s call for a “digital-age upgrade” to education in the New York Times’ Opinionator blog.

“…fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet…For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it’s high time we redesigned American education.”

For example, teachers and professors should stop asking students to write research papers, Heffernan argues, citing Duke English Professor Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It.   Davidson’s students write “witty and incisive” blog posts and terrible term papers.   She blames the term papers.

What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

Old fogies shouldn’t insist that students write if they’d rather make a video, Heffernan believes. It’s the 21st century!

Heffernan misses her own point, responds Porter-Magee.  We can’t predict what today’s elementary students will be doing in 20 years.  Therefore, “our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing—and often fleeting—technology.”

After all, that students can produce “witty and incisive” blog posts for their peers on topics of their choosing says nothing about their ability to write and speak to multiple audiences or about a variety of topics. (Most multimedia products are necessarily limited and we need to ask more of our students.) And the ability to synthesize complicated information in a persuasive way—grounded in facts, research and reading—is critical and timeless.

Students need to learn to write about more than their personal feelings, Porter-Magee writes.


Robert Pondiscio piles on.

Hanna Barbera thought that Elroy Jetson, age six, would study space history, astrophysics, star geometry and math at the Little Dipper School. No reading or writing in the future?

Remedial prep

Edupundits’ focus on teacher quality, misses the point, argues Will Fitzhugh on The Concord Review. What counts is whether students do serious academic work in high school, such as reading history books or writing a research paper.  Academics Lite students aren’t prepared for college reading and writing and often end up in remedial classes, doing high school all over again.

They’re not prepared for the workforce either. Employers spend more than $3 billion a year trying to teach writing skills to their employees, according to the Business Roundtable.

Students aren’t held responsible for doing the work, Fitzhugh complains.

As Paul Zoch has so regularly pointed out, the message (sent) down the line to students is that their job is to get through high school with a minimum of work, while it is someone else’s responsibility to educate them.

. . . We should not kid them about the need for serious reading and academic expository writing, and when we do, we are not educating them, we are cheating them.

Many students, especially those whose parents aren’t college-educated, have no idea what skills, knowledge and work habits are required to pass college classes. They pass classes labeled “college prep” with B’s and C’s. They think they’re doing well enough.  If they knew they were in remedial prep they might work a lot harder.

College prep without the prep

On Community College SpotlightHigh schools don’t teach students to write a research paper, college students complain.

Writing for knowledge

Most high school teachers  don’t assign “serious research papers” to their students, writes Will Fitzhugh, now a Concord Review blogger, on The Answer Sheet.

. . . teachers do not have the time (or perhaps the knowledge) to guide students through them and to assess them when they are handed in.

. . . as long as educators do not see that writing serious term papers will lead to more knowledge, which leads students to read better and understand more, such papers will continue to receive the small notice they now do.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education poll a few years ago, 89% of college professors said their students were not very well prepared in reading, doing research, and writing, Fitzhugh notes.

Also on The Answer Sheet, 17-year-old Christiane Henrich, a Marblehead High senior, writes about writing her first research paper.

Before crafting my research paper on U.S. Civil War Medicine, I had never composed a piece of non-fiction literature beyond six or seven pages. Twenty pages seemed to be an unconquerable length.

Her paper was published in The Concord Review, a quarterly academic journal for high school history research.