Thursday, January 29, 2009

College Prep

With all of the demoralizing reports detailing the nearly 30% of high school graduates in need of remedial classes during their freshman year of college, maybe our high schools have lost touch with what matters most--skill development. I'm tempted to return to questioning the content we use in the typical English curriculum, but that topic will only distract from the more important issue. I will only add that I believe the content of our courses is important to our college preparatation track.
In Sweating the Small Stuff, David Whitman includes, Require a rigorous, college-prep curriculum, in his list of 20 habits of effective schools. To accomplish such a demanding curriculum, schools narrow their overall curriculum choices to focus on the core academics: math, science, history, english. Additionally, Whitman observes that these schools do not track and avoid offering bilingual or "formal multicultural instruction."
Of course, such simplification demands critical thought and ultimately a few questions.

1. How can a school avoid tracking when the academic levels are disparate? As an example, before the restructuring of my reading classes, I had, in one class, two students reading at the ninth grade level, three students reading below the third grade level, and five students spread between the fourth and eigth grade level.

2. How can a school overcome the tide of pressure from the public to offer a liberal arts curriculum? As and example, we at my school still offer "life skill" classes like cooking and sewing. We also offer Jewelry and Exploring the Internet. In addition to those, we have electives like Creative Writing and Journalism.

3. If a school is high school, and the students arrive highly deficient, can that school honestly implement a college-prep curriculum? As an example, of the approximately 200 incoming 9th graders this year, nearly 100 were placed into supplemental reading classes. Fifty percent in need of "catch-up" classes indicates a failure throughout the system to ensure a properly educated student.

The third question is the most baffling for me. I've taught tracked and heterogeneous courses withouth feeling too stressed about my ability to differentiate (although I think that term is a crock when it demands individual education plans for every student), and I am all for expelling the non-essential courses until a school's academic record is stellar; but I don't know how to implement--with integrity--a college-prep curriculum when so many incoming students are three or more years behind in the four academic areas.
And that lack of knowledge causes me to digress from seeking a solution because I so often read articles about failing schools--almost always high schools. The public seems to believe that students arrive at high school with all of the skills and motivation necessary to succeed; then our high schools ruin their motivation with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Algebra I, Global Studies, and Physical Science. The only saving grace of their day is P.E. and Photography.
This reality doesn't excuse low-performing high schools from holding high standards, but we have to be honest about where each school begins the process. College-prep for all is an ideal; the realities "on the ground" may dictate something else.
And yet that reality bothers me. I don't really want to teach middle school material, especially to a high school student. I shouldn't have to. And such is the struggle of the public school teacher at a low performing school.


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