How Do We Get Students Ready for College?

by George C. Leef

George Leef is book review editor for The Freeman.

A lament frequently heard by college professors is that many incoming students are not ready for college-level work. Even though what passes for “college-level work” isn’t what it used to be at many institutions, professors still report that their students struggle with reading, writing, and basic math. (Lest one think that such laments are only heard at unselective, fourth-tier schools, Patrick Allitt’s book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, which recounts Professor Allitt’s difficulties in teaching American history at Emory University, will serve as an antidote.) The question is, what can be done about this problem?

In the October 14 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Charles B. Reed (chancellor of the Cal State system) and Kristin Conklin (a program director at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices) address that question (“Enrolling in College, Ready or Not”). Reed and Conklin write,

After they are admitted, students must meet institutional placement standards, measured by tests that colleges require them to take. Most of those tests focus on language skills like critical reading and writing, as well as mathematics, because those skills are the foundation of further learning. If a student can’t meet certain standards, he or she must take remedial or developmental education before moving on to regular college-level course work.

Quite true, but many students who manage to pass the placement tests still have serious academic deficits, and it is an article of faith that passing a semester in remedial (“developmental” is a lovely euphemism, but I decline to use it) English or math will suffice to get a student ready for regular college studies.

The authors recognize that the solution to the problem does not lie within higher education, but rather in the years that precede it. K-12 academic standards have been eroding for years, thanks to the “best practice” notions widely taught in American education schools. Required reading on that depressing subject includes Rita Kramer’s Ed School Follies, Martin Rochester’s Class Warfare, and Cherie Pierson Yecke’s The War Against Excellence. Today, your typical high-school graduate believes that school is just a rather boring, obligatory use of his time that is tolerable only because it leads to the paper credentials necessary to unlock the door to high-paying employment. Put a lot of young people with that attitude in a classroom and a professor has little choice but to water down the material and make sure he keeps the kids entertained. On that point, one more book to read–Generation X Goes to College by Peter Sacks.

Here is what Reed and Conklin propose: “[E]ach state needs to agree on one consistent set of readiness standards for all public higher education within that state. Otherwise schoolteachers and students cannot have a clear, focused view of what being prepared for college means and how to achieve that.” A quintessentially bureaucratic approach–have public officials come up with a set of standards.

Count me as a skeptic.

It isn’t by accident that government schooling is the way it is. Millions of teachers are doing things exactly as they believe they should–and want to. The soft, undemanding approach to education suits most of them perfectly. Why, for example, is it now rare to find a teacher who will take a red (or purple or any other color) pen to a student essay and give it severe, line-by- line scrutiny? Without that, students simply won’t learn to write well. Alas, the idea that there are rules for good writing is now regarded by writing theorists as the stuff of Neanderthals. And besides that, grading essays takes a lot of time and criticizing the way students write is apt to upset them . Even if the teacher were capable of giving students a useful writing critique (something we should not assume), it’s much easier not to bother.

State “college readiness” standards are bound to become a political game in which the end-product will be an impressive-sounding document that won’t accomplish anything. The officials and interest groups involved will find a way to say that students need to be proficient in English and math that will take up enough pages to justify all the time that went into writing the document. Whatever the standards ultimately say, the teaching of the 3Rs will continue pretty much as it has in the past. Public education, after all, is not like a business where people need to worry about losing their jobs if they don’t perform.

Some Students Are Ready

Speaking of public education (or more accurately, government schooling), the complaints about students who are not college-ready almost always pertain to those who have spent their K-12 years in government schools. Most children who have either attended private schools or who have been home-schooled are well prepared for anything college professors throw at them. Sometimes, in fact, those students find that college courses are too simple and boring. Private schools don’t have elaborate standards for “college readiness,” nor do parents who home-school. Somehow, though, the results are much better when the focus is on learning rather than on meeting bureaucratic standards.

Several years ago the writer Jonathan Rauch made the case for “enlightened defeatism” with respect to big government. Much as I want to hope that somehow government schooling will change its stripes and start graduating lots of students who are eager and well equipped to learn in college, I strongly suspect that enlightened defeatism is in order about that. No matter what conferences are held and what standards are written, freshman classes at most colleges and universities will continue to be largely composed of “disengaged students,” as Professor Paul Trout calls them. (See his article “Disengaged Students and the Decline of Academic Standards,” Academic Questions, Spring 1997.)

For decades educational “progressives” have been promoting the idea that institutions need to adjust to the supposed needs and desires of the students. That is the implicit message in all the talk about “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences”–schools must conform to their students. To suddenly do an about-face and insist that students and teachers must adjust to some definite set of college-readiness standards is simply too jarring to imagine.