Raising the Academic Bar


What do we expect of our high school and college age students today? Thirty years ago most academic programs on the secondary and college level were very clearly defined. The student had little latitude for ...

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What do we expect of our high school and college age students today? Thirty years ago most academic programs on the secondary and college level were very clearly defined. The student had little latitude for choice. Today, students have a wide range of academic opportunities. Included within those opportunities are various styles and approaches to learning that one can choose from.

The growing concern that is being raised is whether or not this wide range of choices is helping our students or shackling them. Are these choices helping to develop and strengthen students' intellects or rather contributing to their functional illiteracy?

A growing number of high school seniors and college students can barely read and write, never mind write a declarative sentence.

Students today seem to be exposed to so much more. They have so many more opportunities than those who have gone before them. Thus one would think students would be better equipped to learn and grow intellectually.

The problem is not that black or white. It is much more complicated than that. The educational landscape has changed radically in the last thirty years. In the past ten years, the computer age has revolutionized education and has also severely impaired learning at every level.

More and more students are learning visually. They don't have to read or write, just watch a movie. Unfortunately, too many look at movies as entertainment, not as a tool for learning. Thus, the student seeks to be entertained, not educated. He or she is not always challenged to think critically and process and retain the important information that is presented.

New vocabulary is often lost in the transition. New words are rarely looked up or used. At best, note taking is weak or non-existent. If educational films are not "academy award winners," they are often dismissed by the student as being boring and not helpful.

High school and college teachers are subtly being forced to compromise their standards and academic expectations. On the high school level, a growing number of teachers are being critiqued on the amount of work they assign and the type of textbook that is being used for the class. Due to poor reading skills, more and more senior high schools are seeking secondary textbooks on a middle school reading level. For many, even those textbooks are found to be difficult.

Too many seniors are leaving high school and are even bound for college with very weak reading skills and even poorer writing skills. It amazes me how many first semester college freshmen cannot write a declarative sentence, don't know the parts of speech or how to punctuate a narrative essay.

At the end of the fall semester, I was talking to a number of my freshmen advisees about their courses for the spring. Most of these students were bright, articulate young men and women, who were looking to take courses in their majors that expected little or nothing in work performance. They did not speak about being challenged or learning anything significant, but rather what would be the "shortest distance between two points."

More simply put, "what do I need to do to get an A, in an environment where I don't have much to read, not many writing assignments and exams that are pretty simple and predictable?"

To the shame of many educational institutions (including the two that employ me) a number of my colleagues ask little or nothing from their students. They don't challenge them or demand much work productivity. As long as they show up and don't cause much of a stir, they will receive a reasonable grade.

The contract for learning and the regents action plan have made a feeble attempt to transform education in New York State. Improving statistical scores in math, reading, writing and science is not enough. Students need to learn how to think, problem solve and manage their interpersonal relationships. Students need to be empowered to confront the challenges of peer pressure and make positive decisions.

In the area of human development, we seem to be failing miserably. Many of our school campuses are not life giving, nurturing environments. Students do not feel safe or encouraged. Too many schools are war zones because of the overt and subtle violence and discrimination.

If children are our national treasure, then we need to seek better, more creative ways to educate them. Our children don't need glorified babysitters, but rather professional educators who are committed to the total growth and development of the whole student.

Holistic education is costly, not because of money, but because it demands that we educate differently. We can no longer perpetuate the status quo. We have to raise the academic and social bar to a higher standard. We need to expect and demand more of teachers, but also must compensate them differently. Parents must be a part of this learning equation. Every parent must be held accountable so that truly "no student is left behind."

TJ is twenty-one and a functional illiterate. He is a casualty of American public education at its' worst. Unfortunately, TJ was born into a dysfunctional family. He is the youngest of five children. Both of his parents are dead. CPS removed him and his four siblings from his home when he was seven. His parents were active drug users who blatantly neglected their children. Due to their addiction, they were incapable of raising and nurturing children.

In middle school, TJ was in a foster home. He made a series of poor decisions and ultimately ended up in the group home system. He aged out of that system ill prepared for life.

His middle and high school education was at best poor. After reviewing his report cards, it was clear that he had special needs that were never met. He was socially promoted and passed until the 11th grade when he dropped out. He dropped out of school because he felt ill equipped to do the work.

At twenty-one, he is angry and frustrated. His writing, math and reading skills are very few and far below his age appropriate level. His frustration and his wanting to do something more forced TJ out of the shadows.

Presently, he is receiving tutoring in reading, writing and math. He is enrolled in Suffolk Community College to work on a dual track of attaining his GED and retaining college credits towards his associate's degree. Some day TJ would like to be a social worker and ultimately protect others from walking down the dead end street he was detoured on.

There are too many TJs out there who are being victimized by a system of education that is inept. We have to end social promotion and the graduation of functional illiterates. This approach to education helps no one.