The first thought that comes to my mind when we talk about “college and workplace readiness for all” is that “all” don’t want to go to college. “All” will never be ready, although a great many may eventually be able to handle the academic rigors of college. “All” are also less likely to be workplace ready now than they were 10 years ago and the trend is hardly going in the right direction.
I have spent 8 months now in a high school whose vision statement reads “College and workplace readiness for every student without remediation.” It’s not the snappiest vision statement. That “without remediation” takes some of the wind out of its verbal sails. But it’s a sensible enough goal.
This high school is a public, four-year high school in Illinois, located in a northwest suburb of Chicago. The school has not made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on the Prairie State Achievement Examinations under the the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Since almost no school is making NCLB targets, this is no disgrace. Many of the best high schools in Illinois have failed to make yearly progress.
But educational administrators at the high school have locked into the goal of making AYP, especially since job retention is now hinging on score improvement.
Efforts to make AYP have not improved life for students or teachers. With every class assigning 5 paragraph argumentative essays, those students have been buried in essays at various times. They then often do a substandard job on those essays, a “good-enough” effort to placate their teachers. But student motivation is low and the questions from the gallery are pretty much tailored to figure out just how little effort is acceptable. What will happen if I don’t do it? What will the point value be? How many points can I lose before it affects my grade? Math minutes have shown a similarly potent lack of motivation. Once students discovered no grade would be given, some students began to write any answer that looked plausible and a number of answers that were clearly impossible. At first, students tried to cheat and use calculators when they weren’t supposed to. Then those same students gave up the calculators, having decided that the answers were irrelevant anyway. A fair number of students did a good job, of course, taking their essays and math minutes seriously. Those students benefited. But for the most part, those were not the students who needed to be doing essays and math minutes.
Something has to be done. That’s certain. Many students are frighteningly far from college and workplace readiness.
But the big problem I see is that we are attacking skills when the problem is actually motivation. With motivation, the skills would come with extra practice. But without motivation, that practice is almost useless and requires a great deal of class time, not to mention the extra time needed to grade over 100 some essays — essays that many students won’t even bother to look at when the papers are handed back. Practice only makes perfect when that practice is taken seriously.
Eduhonesty: To repeat a line from above: We are attacking skills when the problem is motivation.