Monday, July 11, 2011

Why Aren't More Students Prepared for College?

Perspective. Truly one of the best words in the English language.

Understanding education, its problems and its successes, so often comes down to having a proper perspective–a sufficiently broad, systemic grasp coupled with specific experiences at the classroom and student level.

Unfortunately, as you’ve discovered by reading other entries in this blog, many of the people trying to influence educational policy do not have this kind of perspective.  They often have neither of these essential attributes.  All they have is data handed to them from a murky, unqualified standardized test, and a bunch of concerned interest groups telling them what to do and say.

The question of why more students aren’t prepared for college often gets asked by these people, and the reason they ask it is because they lack proper perspective.

As I will reveal here and in other places on this blog, I have come to realize that I have one of the most rich, diverse, and well-considered perspectives on education of anyone I know.  This is not just from ten years of teaching.  Many people have more.  It’s because I have taught so many different classes in that time, everything from remedial math to AP chemistry.  More details about me can be found on the 'Author Bio and Purpose' Page.

For our purposes today, however, I have the following perspective: I taught ninth grade physical science students one year, and two or three years later, taught many of those same students in my chemistry classes.  Thus, I have the unique perspective that comes from seeing students at the start of high school, and then observing those same students after several years of growth and maturation (hopefully).

With this informed perspective, I am able to offer a partial answer to “the college question.”
We don’t see more students prepared for college because of two primary reasons:
  • More students today don’t want to be prepared
  • Too many have not been given the proper perspective regarding the value of education
You’ll notice that neither of those items includes teachers, principals, standards, testing, merit pay, or any of the other obsessions that usually dominate this discussion.  So, let’s take a look at these two reasons so we can understand why they far outweigh the influences of all those other more popular culprits.

1. Not Prepared for High School
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a student unprepared for high school will–if he or she tries to make it that far–will very likely also be a student unprepared for college.

I taught ninth grade physical science for a year after having taught math for five.  I was excited to be moving into the subject I enjoy the most, and was looking forward to being a part of one of the ninth grade teams we have at our school.  These teams include language arts and social studies teachers and groups of students shared by all three subjects.  This is a popular idea today in education–break big schools into smaller ones.

In this first attempt at teaching physical science, I experienced two divergent trends.  On one hand, our team of three sections (90 students) was populated with one of the most promising, enthusiastic crops of freshmen we had seen in years.  We had students who loved learning, loved their teachers, shook our hands, asked questions, and did high quality and thorough work–all the things a teacher wants.  On the other hand, our team was also weighed down with an unusually large number of very challenging students (compared to the other teams and to later years of ours).  These were the kinds of students who can focus for about twelve seconds.  Who can’t stay in their seat for more than two minutes.  Who throw things.  Who draw graffiti on tables, walls, doorknobs, bulletin boards, and bathrooms.  Who argue with everything the teacher says and does.  Who insult each other and the teacher, and laugh when he tries to get them re-focused.

Deviant, defiant, and disrespectful.  They were, in a word, recalcitrant–one of my favorite words. One student kicked a garbage can at me because he couldn’t stop talking or stay in his seat, and wouldn’t put his cell phone away.  Then he got that look on his face that babies get when they’re about to cry.  But being a four-foot tall ninth grader with an image to maintain, he had to fight it with all his might.  So he found a new use for garbage cans.  And that was just in the first week.

While some students interacted over science articles, worked on understanding basic chemistry and physics concepts, and developed their minds for the future, others were laughing, talking about meaningless stuff, and insulting and arguing with me when I tried to redirect them.

In one class, I had a group of six boys who all earned less than 30% in the class.  They did zero work, and didn’t even pretend to do it by December.  Constantly out of their seat.  Constantly interrupting.  Constantly rude and insulting to me.  It got progressively worse.

(Now, some of you might be wondering, can’t this guy manage his class?  Two things.  First of all, until you’ve tried it, you’ve got nothing to say, because you weren’t there, and haven’t ever stood in front of a class.  Second, if I was a poor manager of my classroom, then why did a good portion of my students learn so much over the course of that year?  The myth of classroom management is that a good teacher can always make it work, no matter who the students are, and that a well-managed class is one that works for all students.  The truth is that a well-managed class works for the students who want it to work.  The truth is that only a teacher highly skilled in this particular area, who can understand and relate to students with no sense of direction and who hate authority figures, is able to handle classes like I had that year.  This is a small subset of teachers.  They are out there (including, fortunately, my other two team members).  But the question is, should I have to be a wizard at this to be a good teacher?  Should I have to be an expert in rebellious-adolescent psychology to be an educator?  How many people in any job excel in all aspects of it?  Very few.  Don’t I have the right to expect students who are able to sit still and focus on a task for more than twelve seconds?  The best lesson plan in the world is cat litter to an unprepared and apathetic student.)

All that to say, a good teacher also reflects on their practice, learns, and improves.  We find out what works and what doesn’t, and we do it better the next time.

A good student ought to as well.

And that brings me back to the first claim I made above.  Students such as these fail because don’t want to do well.  Some people recoil when they hear this.  I’ve heard them say so.  They think all students, in some corner in their minds, want to learn and do something with their lives.  As I came to discover, this is not the case.  I’m talking about a small subset of students, but a very real one.

Sure, they’ll say they care.  If you ask a class of students at my school how many want to go to college, most hands go up.  Then, a portion of those students will act in ways completely incompatible with any semblance of success.  You try telling them this, and they laugh and scoff at you, or argue with you, or blame you.  You try helping them stay organized, stay on task, think, do your work tonight, blah blah blah..., and they give a good face when the right people are watching.  But when it's back to the classroom, it’s chaos, version 2.0.

These students say they want to do well, but they are unwilling to improve in any of the behaviors that will get them there.  Put another way, they want it to just magically happen, without any effort, struggle, cost, or hardship on their part.  In a word, they are immature.  And no one this immature goes to college and succeeds.

I would take these boys out in the hallway and tell them their behavior harms not only their own futures, but also those of all the other students who have to continually sit there waiting for these guys to be quiet.  In fact, one of our team’s words that year was “hinder.”  We used vocabulary in any way possible.  So we would say, “You are hindering the learning of your classmates.”

Then they lower their heads, pretend to be sorry, go back in the room, and do it all over again.  No change at all, over an entire year.  I tried involving administration, security personnel, phone calls home to parents, the other teachers on my team.  No change over the year.  In fact, it got worse.  Second semester was worse than the first.

If a student hears the same message coming at them day after day, week after week, month after month, and never even tries to change his behavior, it means he simply doesn’t care about that message.  It took me a long time to realize this, but it is the uncomfortable truth I finally accepted.  Before that, I always assumed students wanted to do well.  Most do.  Some don’t.

Whatever my flaws as a teacher at that time (and I assure you, they were minor and correctable... otherwise I wouldn’t still be doing this), none of that excuses in the slightest way the kinds of behaviors I and the good students in the class had to endure.

We can sum it all up like this: These students were not ready for high school.  They came in as freshmen and acted like fourth graders with larger bodies (except for the garbage can-attacker, poor little guy).  They lacked the discipline, the focus, the respect for each other and authority, the organization, and yes, the perspective.

This is about being behaviorally unprepared.  Most people only focus on academic preparation.  But these two are inextricably linked for some students.  For academics, yes, the teacher has more influence.  But behaviorally, all I have to say is this: “Hey, you try it.” And without this one, you’ll see little of the other.

Three Years Later
The best part of this–and this is where my perspective became enlightened–comes a few years later.  I teach chemistry, a class for juniors and seniors.  Many of these same students I had as freshmen ended up in my chemistry classes.

And many of them didn’t.  Now, if you could guess, which students, for the most part, do you think made it to chemistry?  If you’re not sure, then I sincerely hope you’ve never lobbied a congressman about an educational proposal, because this is teaching 101.  The students who took chemistry included all the good students from those ninth grade classes.  All the ones who sat there suffering while a group of boys ran around like wild animals, or a girl argued with the teacher about her cell phone, or boy insulted the teacher as he tried to lead the class through a discussion.  All the good students persevered, and here they were in chemistry–a real, bonafide college-prep class–with the same teacher.

And guess how these classes went?  They were great!  So great, in fact, that many of these students hit me up for letters of recommendation.  One got accepted to MIT.  That original freshmen team produced four of the ten valedictorians in their graduating class.  And we were the smallest team.  Many told me how much they liked the class, how much they learned.  One girl–we’ll call her Froma (after one of my favorite columnists), hated me as a freshman.  She couldn’t stand my class that year, and when she found out she was having me again for chemistry, went to another teacher from our freshman team to complain about it.  He wisely (with his own enlightened perspective) told her that this class would probably be quite different.

By the end of the year, Froma herself told me how much she liked my class.  That year, I had zero discipline issues, zero arguments, zero garbage-can kickings, zero insults.  Conversely, we had excellent student-student interactions, great strides made in learning on all major levels, including writing, math application, and deep understanding of chemistry concepts and skills, and a very positive classroom climate.

It turns out that Froma hated me because of the side of me that was brought out as a result of all the chaos, disrespect, and hatred of education.  I’ve learned over ten years (more perspective!) that the thing I hate more than any other in education is apathy.  I just loathe it.  To not care about your education is, in essence, to not care about life.  You are throwing away your free education–at taxpayer expense–for nothing in return.

You are setting yourself up for a life of incompetence, instability, uncertainty, and ignorance.  You will know little of value, will be dependent on others to do for you what you should be able to do for yourself, and will have little chance of changing anything.  That’s what apathy gets you, if it festers long enough.  And it costs our system a lot of money.

And so I hate it.  High school is the last chance for you to improve your life while nothing more is expected of you.  Apathy wastes that chance.  What Froma didn’t like was my reaction to student apathy.  Over the years, I’ve gotten better at framing my reactions more constructively. Sort of.  Once she saw me in a class full of students who do care, that side of me never came out, and the class was superb.  And Froma learned, and we got along great.

If you read “My Proposal–the Answer” at the top of the blog, you’ll read about students in the middle.  Students who, in a good classroom environment, will learn and benefit from all the teacher has to offer.  Those same students struggle in a poor environment.  They get frustrated, lose focus and motivation, and can’t deal with constant interruptions.  Froma is that type of student.  She declined over the course of the year as a freshman, but excelled as a junior.  Same teacher.  Different students.

Even more fascinating, one of the boys from that group of six chaotic freshman managed to make it to chemistry the year after Froma, as a senior.  We’ll call him Bluto.  Because Bluto blew his entire freshman year away, failing every class, he now had to pass chemistry to graduate.  And blowing that first year made chemistry a lot harder than it should have been.  Further, his non-existent work ethic as a freshman had only moderately developed, and now that he was in a class that would challenge any normal student, he struggled to keep up on the work.  So it was down to the wire with a 60.0% in June.  But I digress.

The interesting moment that year came when I overheard Bluto talking to another student in the class saying, “I feel bad about the way I treated Mr. Magill” (that’s me...) as a freshman.  True, genuine remorse.  He never said it directly to me, but it confirmed that everything I had endured in those freshman classes was completely preposterous.  I had spent all those months questioning myself.  Am I any good at this?  Are my methods good?  I tried this and it didn’t work; what about that?  And all that time I had this voice telling me that it wasn’t my fault.  None of it.  Even mistakes I made weren’t really my fault, because they took place in situations no teacher should have to face.  And this moment, three years later, vindicated that voice.  Those kids as freshmen knew exactly what they were doing, and they didn’t care.  Now, three years later, at least one of them had come to a moment of realization (most of the others had dropped out or transferred–a big shock, I know).  He realized, “I was a real punk, and I feel bad about ruining that class for the teacher and all the other students.”

Students who don’t care won’t learn, and won’t be prepared for college.  And as we’ll see next, caring has nothing to do with academic talent.

2. Student Perspective
The second major reason some students aren’t prepared for college is because they don’t understand what it takes to get there, or why knowledge and skills matter.  Further, they know even less about what it takes to succeed there.  It’s one thing to get accepted to college.  I call that “the easy part.”  It’s quite another, as any college professor will tell you, to succeed.  College is hard.  Students who don’t possess a proper perspective on the value of education will not succeed in college.

What is this proper perspective for a student?

In a word, I’d describe it as “ownership.”  It’s mine.  My education is up to me, and I want it bad enough to work at it, no matter the cost.  I’ll work on my own, ask questions in class, work with other students, sacrifice a few pointless video games for something that has value, and I’ll keep doing it until I get it. Some people call this “maturity.”  A teacher never has to discipline a student with this perspective.  And a class full of this kind of student, even an overloaded one with 40 students, is more manageable than one with 20 students who don’t have it.

You can always tell when a student lacks the ownership perspective.  Such students think education is up to the teacher.  (Sound familiar?  Some parents and some education-policy “experts” think this too).  Common phrases from students like this include: “Why did you give me a C?”; “You never taught us that;” “How can I do the work if I don’t understand it?”; and “Why don’t you give more extra credit?”  They think their learning is up to me, and that the grade and the credit is all the matters.  But a student who owns her learning doesn’t think this way.

The great thing about ownership is this: It has nothing whatsoever to do with academic talent.

Some students are “smarter” than others.  Meaningless.
Some students work harder than others.  Priceless.

A C student who comes every day, works hard, asks questions, does her work on time, and studies for test is better than an “A” student who does none of those things but has some natural talent for taking tests.  Sure, that student can get higher test scores in what are relatively easy situations (like standardized tests).  But take that student five years later, and what do you see?

You’ll see a college dropout, because everyone reaches a point where the work doesn’t come easy anymore.  And a student with no work ethic who doesn’t respect the subject of study will not be able to follow through with the effort required to master it at the highest levels.

Every year we have students who can get A’s on tests, but who get C’s and D’s in class because they won’t do the work.

“But, if they know it, isn’t that what matters the most?”

No, actually.  That’s the standards movement speaking through you.  Just because you know it on a test doesn’t mean you can do it when it counts or keep up in the real world.  An engineer who never comes to work and is late on all his reports won’t be an engineer for very long.  They must be continually learning, changing, and adapting to new technologies and systems.  Meeting demands for different bosses, different contracts, different situations.  Becoming an expert at anything requires effort.

Natural talent gets you nowhere without a work ethic.  Without ownership.  That’s why a student who works hard and earns C’s will someday have a job and probably keep it.  A student who doesn’t work hard–no matter what his grade–will likely end up a deadbeat.  Or, he’ll do a job far beneath his abilities because he wasted his great potential in favor of an extra nap.  We see this every year, over and over again.  It’s the tortoise and the rabbit.

We call home, we plead, we cajole, we incentivize, we labor.  We offer chances.  My favorite is when a student comes in with a week left in the semester with a bad grade and says, “What can I do to bring my grade up?”  Then I say, “Well, you can go back and do all the work you missed, and I’ll give you half credit for it.  If you do this much of it, you can raise your grade.”

Then they leave with an inflated sense of hope.  Guess how many times I see that student come back with all the work?  Almost never.  When the reality hits them of how much work they’ve missed, the same apathy, the same malaise the kept them from doing it the first time rears up again, and they can’t sustain the effort.

No student who can’t do five problems a day for three months will be able to do three hundred problems in one week.  It just isn’t in them (much less, is that really learning?).  Maybe next semester.  Problem is, when you’re a senior, there is no next semester.  Life is upon you, and you’ve wasted your free shots.

All the poor behaviors I touched on in the first section really come back to this.  These students do not perceive the value of education.  If they ever finally do get it, they will likely be in their mid-twenties, and will have to spend a lot of money to go back to school and do it right this time.

Finally, at that time, they’ve learned the concept of ownership.  They have perspective.  This actually matters, they realize.  All those things my teachers said were true.  I wish I’d listened.

Perspective for students is a lot nicer on the front end.  On the back end, it’s hindsight.  And hindsight doesn’t get you many interviews.

Can We Legislate Perspective?
So where can students gain this perspective?  Parents? Teachers? Other students? Counselors? Career fairs and job field trips?  The answer is, of course, all of these.  But the first answer is quite obviously parents.  And no, not the government, though I appreciate President Obama regularly saying parents must do better for their children’s futures.

A student raised in a home that never opens a book, never reads a newspaper, never has a thoughtful discussion about an issue that doesn’t involve reality TV or “what she said,” never talks about the reasons to do well in school or the value of succeeding in college–such a student will have a very hard time hearing all those other people talking about boring stuff like reading and responsibility.

How do I know this?  At our school we like to let seniors who “messed up” their freshmen years come in and speak to the new crop of freshmen before the year starts.  Tell them the lessons they learned the hard way, and what they would do differently.  It’s a lot better to hear it from other students, right?  Sure it is.  I’m all for this.  But if this worked well, shouldn’t we eventually run out of speakers?

The truth is, perspective is really another word for wisdom.  And wisdom cannot be learned in a textbook or on a standardized test.  You learn because you want to learn.  The later in life you figure this out, the harder your life will be.  Some people spend decades blaming others for their own lack of motivated perspective.  It’s the government, it’s racism, it’s my school, it’s the system.  Sure, all these things can hinder people’s opportunities, given the right circumstances.  Especially racism.

Someday though, every one of these people must discover they just need to get up and do it.  Some people don’t figure this out until prison.  I’ve been fascinated at times with the show “Lock Up” on MSNBC.  It depicts prisons, and follows inmates in various facilities.  And you regularly hear guys saying the same kinds of things our seniors tell the freshmen.  It took these guys a jail sentence to realize they actually do have some control over the quality of their lives.  They can make good decisions, and be responsible, and accomplish things, and achieve, and grow, and hold down a good job.  They can say no to bad influences.

Wrap Up
So, why aren’t more students prepared for college?  Because some don’t want to be, and some don’t perceive the value of their education as it sits before them screaming to be seized and developed.
There is no shortage of opportunity in this nation.  None.

How can I say that?  Because in high school, everyone has an opportunity to learn.  It’s up to you.  I don’t care if you’re at the “worst” school in the nation.  Even at that school, if there is such a thing, I guarantee you–I’d wager my salary, and I don’t gamble–that school has at least a handful of quality teachers who care about their students and tell them things like this regularly.

They have teachers who believe in them, want the best for them, and try to coax them into doing yet another writing assignment, or another set of math problems.  And I bet that school also has a few students who take them up on it, and learn, and end up going to college and succeeding there.

The opportunities are there.  Which of the students have the wisdom–the perspective–to seize them?  And who determines that?  The teacher?  All we can do is point the way.  As Morpheus says so eloquently, “All I can do is show you the door, Neo.  You’re the one who has to walk through it.”

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