June 06, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #4: What's Wrong With Those High School Teachers?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. And Mrs. Johnson
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Your Question

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson:

I’m glad I had the chance to meet you at WalMart yesterday. I’m sorry we didn’t have the time to complete our conversation about college, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to see if I can more completely answer your questions.

Even though John is only a junior, it is certainly not too early for you to start making admission and scholarship applications at the colleges of your choice. John’s SAT score puts him in the top 10% of all students in the nation, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in college. Please let me know if you need letters of recommendation.

I understand your concerns about the quality and value of a college education. Like you, I’ve been reading articles on all of the difficulties in higher education. Perhaps I can explain some of them, or at least those that involve high school. It may also interest you to know that I have actually taught college as an adjunct instructor in the past.

We often hear of college teachers complaining about the quality of students entering college. They claim that many can’t write college level work. They say that they’re unprepared for the responsibility and academic rigor of college. They lament the fact that they have to establish entire departments to provide remedial classes for these kids. And the sad fact is, they’re absolutely right, but not entirely for the reasons one might think. Part of the problem is outlined in an article by Mona Charen (available here).

The simple truth is that Lake Woebegon, where all the kids are above average (and all the women are strong and the men are good looking), does not exist. In the real world, some people are going to excel in academics, most will do at least acceptably well, and some will not do well at all. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has written an interesting article (available here in pdf form) that suggests that there is a minimum level of intelligence necessary for any student to do well, to be able to do genuine college-level academic work successfully. He sets that level at an IQ of 125, which means that only about 15% of the population will meet or exceed that standard.

Murray is certainly onto something. Of course, some people with an IQ lower than 125 can do well in college through hard work and sheer determination. I know a great many of those people, and I have many such kids in my classes. Understanding this, we should not discourage people from trying college, but they should embark on their college adventures well informed and with their eyes wide open. I can certainly make a reasonable argument for the value of college in potentially producing more well-rounded and wise people, but even that depends on the individual. I know more than a few people who eventually graduated from college with a major in partying and a minor in waking up in unfamiliar surroundings in a pool of their own vomit. In truth, college isn’t for everyone. Many people don’t need it to live very satisfying, economically comfortable lives.

In high school, we must deal with a wide range of competing interests. Some people would like to do away with “advanced placement” or “gifted and talented” classes because, they say, such programs make students who are not in these classes feel inferior. Some people want to do away with traditional grades so that no one need feel badly about failing. Some try to prevent score keeping in sports so that there will be no winners and losers. It seems that some simply can’t accept that some people will always be smarter than others. They have no trouble at all buying the idea that some kids will never win a spot on the varsity football team, and that some won’t ever be a first chair musician in the school band. They don’t waste a moment’s concern or a tear for those kids, but suggest that some people are simply smarter than others, or that some will have a genetic endowment that allows them academic success with relative ease, and many people have great difficulty accepting what is self-evident.

When college instructors blame high schools for the problems they see, I must disagree, at least partially. I teach mostly sophomores, as you know, but some juniors and seniors. When my new classes arrive each fall, and I find some who can barely write, I don’t rhetorically ask “what’s wrong with those 9th grade teachers?” Instead, I marvel at how far those 9th grade teachers were able to bring those kids in a single year, compared with how academically deficient they must have been at the beginning of their 9th grade year. Remember, please, that social promotion is the norm and has been for decades. It is, in most American communities, rare for any elementary student to be retained for a year, so we tend to pass such students up the chain and when they reach high school, their lack of academic ability becomes particularly, painfully obvious.

Some of these kids have undiagnosed learning disabilities, some are just lazy, some have chosen not to do very much work in school and their parents have allowed them to get away with it. Some few are simply not very smart and/or academically capable. They just didn’t get the genes, for whatever reason.

One of the biggest problems all teachers have is that relatively few kids are readers. The negative effects of this simple fact are surprisingly wide-spread and stunning, but that’s a topic for another time.

In the not-so-distant past, most kids did not plan to attend college. In fact, most colleges did not want most kids because they knew, like Murray, that most people aren’t going to be successful with actual college-level studies. They still had a sense of honor and decency and felt that enrolling people in an expensive college program they would be almost certain to fail was abhorrent. They probably didn’t quantify it, but they knew through experience that in a traditional, rigorous college setting, it would be impossible for most people to succeed. They were, and still are, correct.

Over time, more and more colleges watered down their curriculums, and today, many don’t require American history or the history of western civilization, for example, substituting instead trendy “studies” classes. Did you know that some colleges offer classes on zombies in literature and cinema? That many offer classes in the kinds of sexual behaviors and trends that would have been illegal in past generations? If you haven’t already visited Mona Charen’s article, you might want to do that to see what I mean.

The traditional collegiate mission of educating the most capable scholars, teachers, scientists and leaders has been replaced, in large part, by encouraging as many people as possible to attend college for any period of time. Why? Money. If you enroll in any college, after a very short time at the beginning of each semester, there are no refunds. It’s cynical, I know, that many colleges are more concerned with getting those funds than with the academic success of their students. In encouraging more and more people to attend college, it is only reasonable to believe that more and more will fail, because only a relatively small portion of the population is truly capable of collegiate academic success. Still, far more people attempt college than ever before.

If this is true, and I submit that it is, what have colleges done about it? They’ve dumbed down the curriculum. They’re reduced the requirements for many college degrees to nothing more than what is required for success in high school. Why else would colleges establish remedial writing and math programs? Shouldn’t people arriving on a college campus be prepared to write on a college level? Of course they should, but not everyone can do that.

Our leaders often don’t help either. Mr. Obama has federalized the entire student loan industry and has often stated his goal that every American should go to college. He is apparently willing to spend any amount of taxpayer money to ensure that happens. This is, of course, nonsense. Not everyone is capable of being a successful plumber or electrician. To believe that everyone can successfully earn a college degree is wishful thinking. But if you lower the standards for college, far more can not only attend, but eventually earn a degree. Of course, it’s reasonable to ask what such a degree is worth.

Many states—including ours—are demanding that we implement “college readiness standards” across the board for all students. They seem to think that merely by establishing hopelessly optimistic standards in academic disciplines, that we’ll have the time to teach them all and that students will learn them all to the same level of performance, a level that will ensure universal success in college. We often hear from colleges who want to send out recruiters and/or teachers who will encourage students to go to college. Aren’t people smart enough to know if they want to go to college? Are people truly unaware that colleges exist? Do we really need the President of the United States to make our college decisions for us?

Hopefully, some reality is being injected into the situation. We’re beginning to realize that a college degree, for a great many careers, is not a guarantee of employment or high salaries. We’re starting to understand that leaving college with enormous student loan debt isn’t very smart after all. Many predict that the higher education bubble is going to burst and that colleges may have to return to actually teaching college to those actually capable of doing college level work.

Where does that leave us in high school teaching? Where we’ve always been. I take kids as I find them when they first enter my room each year and do my best to take them as far down the road to what they need to know to be successful in the future as possible. Some won’t get as far as others, but every one of them will make at least some progress, every one that is, except those who choose not to make progress. Some always make that choice.

As I said, John is going to do very well in college. I know that he plans to study engineering, and in that discipline, the kind of curricular silliness that is common in other disciplines tends not to be present. There is not a lot of nuance in calculating stress factors in bridges. You either have it right or you have disaster. You can help by encouraging him to take more serious electives and to avoid any class with “studies” in the title. I suspect that John will do all of that for you.

I hope I’ve provided some useful information. Please let me know if I can help with anything in the future.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at June 6, 2011 11:06 PM


Not only is college not the place for every warm human body in America, contrary to what Obama, university administrators, and high school counselors claim, it seems that citizens can look forward to wantonly brutal visits from our--strike that--the Education Department. See DrudgeReport for June 8.

So now everybody is to go to college, and they had better not cross the Education Department as they do so, or they send Luigi--strike that---federal agents to break down their doors and terrify and humiliate their families.

Gosh, speculation about what the American future can hold is open.

Posted by: Mavrocordato at June 8, 2011 12:19 PM

It is a sad state of affairs that, more often than not, colleges have in the graduation requirements a 'studies' course. So as a white male, you have a choice of being blamed for being white & male, white & heterosexual or just for simply for being male.

In order to graduate...

Posted by: MunDane at June 12, 2011 11:31 AM