Slow Down and Build a Strong Foundation

This is a guest post by Jane Arnold, a professor of English and reading specialist at Adirondack Community College (SUNY). Her article, “What Do the Students Think? appears in the online version of the January-February 2014 issue of Academe.

In my essay, “What Do the Students Think?” the students point out that their educations often moved so fast that they had no time to master the foundation skills they need order to succeed at the next step.  Unfortunately, the response to current negative critiques of US education seems to be to speed up even more. A current idea is that if students are not prepared for college work when they leave high school, we should allow them to do college work even earlier—offer “high school in college.”

There is no question that some high school students are ready for college work. Of the high school students I have taught in college, one went to the Tisch School at NYU, one to Pratt, and one to Wellesley. Two of these students came from small communities where the high schools did not offer advanced courses, so the students came to the college to do advanced work. There’s certainly no merit to holding students back when they are eager and able to move forward.  These students attended college classes and worked as college—not high school—students.

However, too many students I teach have the illusion that their high school work has not only prepared them for college but is already at college level. In general, they are incorrect. One student quoted in my essay points out that two “college level English classes in high school” did not prepare his girlfriend for college level writing; one of my colleagues (with a PhD) observed in a recent department meeting that, although she received a 5 on an AP English exam, she was still required to take college composition and benefited from it. High school is not, and should not be, college. High school should give students a solid foundation so they can do college work.

We are trying to force students to learn to read at age five, when most of them are not physiologically developed enough to do so. Five-year-olds should be engaging with the world and experimenting with language, story telling, use of space, and creativity. We are insisting that students who cannot read or write at a high school level go directly into college-level courses, and that high school students should not “waste time” by completing their senior year of high school or their freshman year in college. We’re pushing everyone so hard that inevitably they stumble.

I was recently asked to be part of a “summit” discussion about the future of education in my town of 30,000. The discussion included K-12 teachers and administrators, business people, politicians, and community college teachers and administrators. Overwhelmingly people said that the essential skills for K-12 students were things like verbal communication, interpersonal skills, collaboration with peers, and adaptability. In place of watered-down “college in high school courses,” therefore, I suggest we look seriously at the suggestion of my culinary arts student: we should offer courses that teach students the “soft skills” they need before they enter the next level of education. Instead of shoving students into college-level math courses when they are in high school, we could offer college preparatory classes (“freshmen seminars”) before they enter college, so that when they do enter college they have the skills, maturity, and foundation to learn from the academic courses they take.

We in the US are trying to do something extraordinary, which no one else is doing or has ever done. We are trying to prepare everyone, regardless of age, socio-economic status, academic talent, or “challenges,” to benefit from a college education. To do this, however, we need not to speed up but to slow down and be sure students receive the foundation skills they need.  You can’t play on a varsity team if your muscles and skills are not yet at varsity level.

These observations come from 25 years of work in education: tutoring reading to elementary school children, tutoring reading in a middle school, teaching in a charter high school, being a TF at private universities, teaching in two community colleges, working extensively on AP English Literature and Composition syllabi, scoring both Literature and Language AP tests, working on setting standards for the grades 3-5 New York State Common Core ELA tests, working on the SUNY Task Force on Remediation, working on a national career and college readiness project, chairing a symposium to connect high school techers to the local community college, and running a private tutoring business—and talking to and listening to students and other teachers. 

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