A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher

by Erik Voeten on August 8, 2013 · 5 comments

in Education

This is from a retired high school teacher of AP U.S. Government and Politics classes:

If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.

The argument is that No Child Left Behind and other laws have created testing requirements in high schools that leave little room for students to develop critical thinking and writing. I have never gone to an American high school and I must admit I know frighteningly little about what goes on there. At Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service we select students based on their ability to write and think critically. Faculty actually read the essays of applicants. I have no complaints about the level of our freshmen but I know this is a very selective example.

So what should/can higher education professionals do?

{ 5 comments }

Thomas J. Leeper August 8, 2013 at 1:08 pm

This is six months old. Why post now?

Erik Voeten August 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Someone just pointed it out to me and it struck me as interesting. Besides it’s not like this is an issue that has become less relevant.

female ps August 8, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Dear High School Teacher,

You’re preaching to the choir. You assume we have more liberties in what we teach and how we teach than you. We, too, have assessments, evaluations, and some 100-200 students to teach. The buzzword at my U is “retention” and it seems to be at any cost. I have GRADUATE students that are functionally illiterate. We may even have it worse than you because the students and their helicopter parents are footing the bill. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard, “I pay your salary” from them. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

But what can we, professors, do? I think the best way to make changes is from the bottom–that is, by getting to and through the students. Students must insist their classes have a heavy reading list, multiple writing assignments so they can make improvements, and are challenging. This past semester, after being frustrated by one student who often asked (in front of the rest of the class) if he could leave early, do less than the assignment asked for, or skip half the reading, I basically said, “yes, sure, do what you want.” Then I went on to ask the class if they wanted me to lower my expectations. Did they want to learn less? Did they want to be uncompetitive on the job market? Did they want to earn less than others because they were unable to move up in their positions due to not learning the critical thinking skills they needed? The response I got was overwhelmingly positive! They all shouted that they did not want me to lower expectations and they wanted to be competitive. It was awesome!! I think they just need to be reminded, often, that there is a method to our madness and they should not accept a subpar education.

Brett Champion August 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

What can higher education professionals do? Nothing.

The problem in America’s educational system has nothing to do with the curriculum and only very little to do with the teachers. America’s falling educational achievement arises overwhelmingly from the students and their parents. Unless getting an education and being a reasonably intelligent person stop being something that kids (and far too many parents) make fun of and look down on, there’s nothing that anyone can do to reverse this country’s educational decline.

AD August 13, 2013 at 9:18 am

Educational performance of American K-12 students went flat long before No Child Left Behind came around. Not that I’m defending NCLB, but it gets blamed way too much for all of the woes in our education system.

I went through highs school before NCLB was implemented, but we had standardized tests that we had to pass in order to graduate. The tests, however, were a joke. If you knew very basic algebra (e.g., how to solve 2x+1=5), you would ace it. So, the advanced classes spent no time preparing for the tests.

I’m not sure how NCLB changed that dynamic. Yes, they upped the ante by putting in place punishments for schools that have high failure rates, but the states control the content of the tests and have watered them down accordingly. I don’t see why NCLB should change things for the average (and above) students.

I think the best that higher ed folks can do is 1) inform the public about the quality of the high school graduates they’re getting so that the public know there’s a problem (if there is one) and 2) conduct quality research on how to improve education so that policymakers have adequate tools to address the problem. Just getting rid of NCLB is not going to magically improve K-12 performance.

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