If you’ve been out of your home or watched commercial television you know that it’s Back To School time! As we eek out the last promises of summer, the (retail) world is telling us the party’s over. Soon children across the country will be sent off to “have a great year!” Parents and guardians will demonstrate varying degrees of engagement with classrooms and curriculum. But this year there may be a more unified sentiment as The Common Core curriculum is rolled out. The new national (K-12) standards have already been adopted by New York City; and the recent test scores confirm the early complaints of teachers and parents; the stuff is hard.
The tests evaluate what most K-12 tests evaluate; mathematic and language skills. Governor and school superintendent appointed experts developed these standards. The broad (and obvious) mission is to create a national standard for education. The outcome goal is to prepare children for college. That sounds too logical for discussion, right? Well of course K-12 should prepare an individual for college! Not so fast. First off, for approximately 50% of (admitted) college freshman that is not the case. Almost half of all incoming freshman need remedial work when arriving on campus. Secondly, it is not possible that 100% of K-12 students want or need to attend college.
The early grumblings of parents (most of whom have not yet experienced this new curriculum) suggest the roll out is going to be bumpy. Change is always rocky particularly when it’s been too long in coming. No one anywhere will argue that a high school degree is not what it was 50-70 years ago. Most high school diplomas do represent some level of achievement. But unlike the degree of yesteryear they do not necessarily indicate workplace or college readiness. The amount of remediation that occurs on college campuses (at a very high cost) should be alarming enough for parents and educators to demand tougher K-12 standards. However we do need to demonstrate a bit of caution; keeping in mind that colleges and universities are admitting unqualified students. This fact might indicate a bit more to the story.
Higher education is big business. In 1940 only 5% of American men were college graduates. In 2010 the percentage of Americans with baccalaureate degrees was closer to 40%. Colleges and universities are doing eight times the business they did seventy years ago. New buildings have been built, new colleges have been created, programs and institutes have received large amounts of public and private funding, and people have been hired. If they build it and they don’t come, they don’t survive. Tuition never covers the cost of running a college, but there’s no business to be done without product; and students are the product. So yes, the high school graduate with weak writing, or high school level math skills is admitted. And on the tuition payer’s dime, they take the equivalent of high school level classes. For each remedial class they take they prolong their stay and diminish their electives options. Accepting unprepared students means the institution has the income stream for at least four years (often more.) (For a student who is college ready, and arrives with advanced placement credits, graduating in three years is often a viable option.) Large entry-level courses are far more profitable to offer than smaller seminar style classes. This isn’t to suggest that college presidents and boards are collectively twisting their mustaches in some sort of plot. It is to suggest however, that higher education doesn’t suffer from less prepared students.
Students are harmed however when they graduate from high school without basic skills; such as reading comprehension, writing, algebra and geometry. Few parents want their children spending their school day doing test prep. It is a boring and stressful way to spend a school day and comes dangerously close to ignoring all learning beyond basic skills. But parents do want their children to learn and do well. Raising the standards of K-12 curriculum is a step in that direction. Ideally we want our children to graduate from high school fully prepared for the next step in their lives. They should be ready to enter the workforce, vocational training or college. It is not too much to ask and it is simply what we owe to them.