You must raise it before it’s worth jumping over

You must raise it before it’s worth jumping over

What happens in K-12 doesn’t stay in K-12, and speaking particularly of low academic standards, that’s an enormous problem.

The blog “The Quick and the Ed” recently published a piece titled “High Standards: An Essential Tool in Equity for Education.” The author, Mr. Peter Cookson Jr., discusses public schools in particular, and his point is distilled in the title.

I agree with the article that academic standards in schools should be raised – but my sights are on what happens after K-12, as my experience lies in working within community colleges. There, I’ve observed that low standards in lower grades absolutely creep up to the college level. The “collective mediocrity” Mr. Cookson mentions stays with many students, unfortunately, as they move on to post-secondary ed.

Here’s how low standards in K-12 transfer up to the college level:

  1. Low standards transfer in the students’ attitude toward learning and toward the classroom (Mr. Cookson’s recollection of visiting a school in the South Bronx portrays students, despite having an apparently enthusiastic and dedicated teacher, who simply rudely* ignored the lessons). (*Speaking as a teacher, yes, I believe in-class texting and inattentiveness are rude and disrespectful. I think a classroom should be a place of attentiveness and respect for the classroom environment, the teacher, and the other students. In fact, I don’t think much learning occurs otherwise.)
  2. Low standards transfer in the students’ skill levels. (As I highlighted in a recent post, the majority of US high school students are unprepared for college-level work.)
  3. Related to the above: low standards transfer in that community colleges are forced to deal with the skills deficit by investing significant resources in remedial education (covering material at a high school, middle school, and grade school level).

Furthermore, when a community college purports to educate mostly underprepared students accustomed to low academic standards, it will, inevitably, have frustrated students, faculty, and support staff. That’s not to say many students and education professionals aren’t hard-working and dedicated to achievement; that’s not to say community colleges don’t celebrate some successes. But it is to say the students come in the door with significant setbacks on an academic level alone – starting “in the red,” as it were. And it is to say that it takes a strong character to overcome those setbacks and persevere to attain a degree of any kind. Many students drop out along the way (one study cited students’ overconfidence as a large factor – it seems they believe they are college-ready, even while their skills may be lacking).

If students believe they’re college-ready, perhaps it’s because no one has had the heart to tell them otherwise. As the article notes, “Myths persist in some quarters that high standards can hurt struggling students because they reveal their lack of preparation and low level of achievement which, in turn, can cause under-performing students to become discouraged and drop out.” [Emphases mine]


Okay, let’s consider that persistent myth. Let’s say we don’t want to hurt students’ feelings by being honest about their “lack of preparation and low level of achievement.” For instance, let’s consider their lack of writing abilities (I am thinking of the many college students I’ve taught who’ve struggled to write a complete sentence). Those students will not learn if they aren’t challenged to do better, no? So if they do end up in college, they will become rudely awakened in short order. Sure, at that point they may step it up and work hard to overcome their deficiencies; but it’s also quite likely they “become discouraged and drop out” – this time, out of college. And if they never go to college at all, they still have weak literacy and numeracy levels, and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision those negative consequences. So I would argue that so-called “social promotion” and the intentional propagation of low standards is actually cruel to students; it’s certainly flat-out dishonest; and, of course, it’s harmful to all of us, education having a ripple effect on society.

Low standards create big messes.

But now for the good news: the hopeful message that students themselves, independent of policy makers, politicians, and even teachers, can realize . . .

First, this very topic of high standards is the topic that compelled me to start this blog a year and a half ago. I have witnessed, as someone who’s taught college English and been involved in higher ed for over 10 years, the fact that our high school graduates are, in many cases, severely undereducated. What can they do? One thing they can do is work to prepare themselves for college.   

If that seems a tad overwhelming, remember libraries, the many superb resources from universities, and even whole college-level courses that are available free of charge on the internet. With these tools at our disposal, we independent learners have a great deal of power and potential.

If you’re a student, maybe your school doesn’t encourage excellence, and that’s unfortunate; but you can fight the tide of mediocrity and low standards. You are free to challenge yourself above and beyond any classroom; and quite frankly, in many cases, you need to.

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