Dishonesty in the School System: a Commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” – part 2

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The source of this gap between belief [that students are ready for college] and reality [that most are not] is the K-12 education system. Our schools create a fog when it comes to academic preparation for college success. Concerned more with inclusiveness, validation, and graduation than with college preparedness, administrators encourage teachers to, for instance, consider pupil effort in their grading, and push students to take advanced courses for which they have the ambition but not the readiness. Those in charge have their reasons, which mostly turn out to safeguard the interests of adults and their institutions, even as they wreak havoc with the next generation. None of this is acknowledged, however, save by a handful of would-be illuminators, for the education system has generally persuaded itself that this fog is better for kids than clarity would be. – Chester Finn

Our public school culture suffers from a values problem: making students feel good about themselves in the moment (inclusiveness and validation) and efficiently moving them through the system (graduation) matters more than preparing them to succeed in adulthood (college success). In Douglas County high schools, grades are more about completing work and following directions (effort) than they are about the amount of learning that takes place. An “A” does not mean a student has mastered 90% or more of the curriculum; rather it represents completion of 90% or more of work while following directions correctly 90% or more of the time. Effort is necessary for learning, but is not sufficient. Shouldn’t all students be expected to complete all work and follow all directions? This should not be what distinguishes one letter grade from another.

The district’s graduation rate is one of the highest in the state of Georgia, even though its graduates under-perform their state peers in almost every metric of students achievement.

High school administrators aggressively recruit students into Advanced Placement courses, with little regards for whether they are adequately prepared for college-level course work. Students who read at a middle school level are enrolled in History and Literature courses that require comprehending college-level texts. Student who have nto even mastered high school level science curricula are placed in college-level science courses. Consequently, AP enrollment figures have skyrocketed, while AP passing rates have plummeted. 

To what end? School officials claim that students “benefit from the increased rigor.” But do they? While challenging students to meet high expectations is important, unrealistic expectations only exasperate children, and lead to dishonesty about how students are actually doing. Would an undergraduate majoring in Physics benefit from taking a graduate-level Physics course before mastering freshman-level Physics just because it is more rigorous? No, instead, he would learn nothing because the acquisition of new knowledge fundamentally requires the possession of prior, more basic knowledge. If a student lacks the prerequisite knowledge, learning more advanced knowledge is impossible.

It also shortchanges these unprepared students. A child who reads at a middle school reading level needs help catching up from a well-trained reading specialist. It is not an AP teacher’s job to do this, and is at odds with the AP curriculum. If AP teachers find themselves having to do remediation work in the classroom, then students who are ready for college coursework will be neglected.

The end that reckless growth in AP enrollment serves is not student achievement. How then are the “interests of adults and their institutions” being safeguarded? I cannot answer that questions fully, but let me suggest a couple of ways. Douglas County high school principles have an interest in attracting the best students to their magnet programs because good students translates to higher school ratings. One way of attracting students is to market AP course offerings. In order to offer AP courses, though, enough students have to choose to enroll in them, as dictated by funding limitations. If there are not enough academically ready students to populate all these courses (there are not!), principals have to rely on whoever is “motivated” to fill the courses.

Advanced courses are also a way of bringing more state or federal money into the school system. The school receive more money when Gifted students take Advanced Placement courses. If there are not enough students to offer the courses to Gifted students, they will not get the money.

Another interest is the money the College Board makes off AP exams. A single AP exam currently costs $93. In 2016, over 1600 AP exams were taken by Douglas County students, resulting in revenues for the College Board of close to $150,000. Since over 3/4ths of these exams were failed, about $116,000 was wasted on exams that yielded no college credit.

We, as a local community, need to decide if we are going to tolerate the adults in our school system safeguarding their own interests at the expense of our children’s future prosperity.

This is part 2 of a running commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” (National Affairs, Issue Number 30, Winter 2017). 

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