High Standards in Education? Heck Yes!

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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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Smart People, Manual Labor, and a College Education

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chiselIf college affords us the life of the mind wherein we are liberated to think, philosophize, and plan, do we thereby lose sight of the necessary work of survival, and if so, is this a problem?

This article, “The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands” (Scott Carlson, 2/5/12, The Chronicle of Higher Education), addresses these issues, argues that more college instruction should “include more hands-on, traditional skills,” and discusses some colleges where such traditional skills play a critical role in student education.

It’s an intriguing conversation, and it’s clear that beyond the academy, honing one’s hands-on skills and getting in touch with tradition seem quite fashionable: “DIY” in general is trendy, backyard and urban chicken farming are enjoying popularity, and families are taking “haycations” to introduce their kids to life on a farm. Even so, the article’s title is interesting to contemplate: if colleges’ futures are in students’ hands, I still see a common attitude among college students that manual labor is beneath them. Skilled craftsmanship and understanding how to make things seem undesirable to students who aspire to be thinkers, or as the article notes, the “designers” of society. While this article explicitly addresses this attitude among university engineering students, I’ve seen the same pattern of thinking among community college students. They’d like to study themselves up and out of jobs of manual labor.

While this may, indeed, be one attraction of college, students should be realistic about what college can do for them. Putting aside the intrinsic value of skilled craftsmanship and understanding (to borrow a TV title) “How Stuff Works,” let’s say college student X doesn’t end up being a janitor full-time, cleaning for a living. Let’s also say this student X is very smart and capable of achieving in a variety of fields. It’s still unrealistic to imagine student X, or any of us, could or should be full-time thinkers. In fact, very few of us can afford to do that. In addition, we shouldn’t digest the idea that by virtue of being smart, we should disregard the foundational tasks of basic survival: growing food, cooking, constructing. For one thing, if we do wash our hands of these tasks, we’re not at all self-sufficient. (See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance.*) Additionally, concrete problem-solving affords a well-rounded person the opportunity to apply creativity and abstract thinking; and besides, immersing oneself in learning a new, old skill (one that isn’t computer- or even book-related) is enjoyable, rewarding and centering, and connects us to other fields and to ancient traditions.

So as you think about summer DIY college prep, think about planting a backyard garden, learning to cook, or building something small. If you don’t know anyone with these skills, you can find instructional videos on sites like eHow and YouTube, and don’t forget about your local library’s selection of instructional books.

*You can find this book at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

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Shaking Hands with a Learning Bogeyman


scary creature

Not as scary as he seems . . .

If you’ve been exposed to the fashionable education set, you’re likely aware of its widespread aversion to “rote learning.” You may have heard, for instance, the inhumane, even fatal implications of such practices as “regurgitation” and “drill and kill.” I know I’ve heard these terms over and over, dark clouds seemingly floating out of the K-12 system and into the minds of students who come to fear the memorization bogeyman. I’ve observed the bogeyman continues to haunt at least some college students, who recoil in suspicion when they’re expected to commit something to memory, and may argue that requiring “regurgitation” (as they see it) is bad teaching.

And I say no . . . not necessarily. In my own case, I mostly taught college writing and literature survey courses, and memorization wasn’t a large part of our curriculum. I did, however, try an experiment in which I offered an opportunity to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class. A few students took me up on the offer, and the assignment seemed a small personal triumph for them. I also had students comment to me that they were required to memorize some Shakespeare in high school, and rather than recount the incident with disgust (as you might expect from those who’d “regurgitated”), these students seemed proud of their accomplishment and grateful to be challenged that way.

Of course, such assignments as memorizing and reciting verse were commonplace in elementary school years ago. Why is this kind of teaching out of fashion? I think, for one thing, the word “regurgitation” suggests that acquiring knowledge isn’t always pleasant. I hear repeatedly that “learning should be fun,” especially for children; but it’s not always fun. That’s okay (is it realistic or humane, in any case, to raise children’s expectations to a vision of unending, lifelong fun?). In fifth or sixth grade, I may not have enjoyed memorizing and reciting all the US presidents, but looking back, I am glad to have done it; of course that knowledge has come in handy. Likewise states and capitals – countries and capitals – all the prepositions – the multiplication tables – again, surely this “drilled” knowledge doesn’t “kill” students or their souls; it doesn’t suck the love of learning from them and doom them to a stifling life of un-fun, robotic un-creativity.

That’s another reason folks aren’t in favor of rote learning: it’s said that students’ creativity, comprehension, and reasoning skills suffer under “drill and kill” techniques. I don’t agree. I believe creative thought, deep understanding, and reasoning spring from a mind grounded in knowledge; and certain basic facts are tools serving as foundational, gateway knowledge on the path to higher comprehension. We also must admit (mustn’t we?) that some facts, serving that foundational purpose, all educated people should know. And how could one master these mental tools if not for learning by rote? (One could argue, very persuasively, that our enabling students’ ignorance of such basic facts is one real “killer” in American education.)

Obviously, deep, well-rounded learning and critical thinking cannot stop at memorization, and I wouldn’t advocate for Gradgrinds in the classroom. But memorization absolutely can be and often should be an important step on the way to deep learning, and memorization can be a useful, edifying, and even beautiful activity in its own right.

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5 Free Organization & Planning Tools for Students


Is disorganization your downfall? Has an assignment deadline ever slipped your mind due to plannermessy personal files? If so, you probably realize that you’ll save yourself unnecessary time and grief by figuring out how to get those files in order. Fortunately, some nifty free tools on the web can help you become a better-organized student.

Check out these options:

1.       TimeandDate.com: If you like an old-fashioned paper planner, here’s a site that allows you to print calendar pages month by month; you also may create a customized calendar with space for notes, if you wish:

2.       Soshiku is a tool designed to help high school and college students keep track of assignments. It allows you to organize assignments by class, and it will send you an email or SMS when deadlines loom:

3.       Ta-da Lists allows you to create simple to-do lists for yourself or to share. This would be handy for keeping track of your weekly assignments or for working on a group project:

4.       Toodledo offers an expanded array of options for your to-do list, such as a scheduler tool, alarm reminders, and search and sort features. Again, you can choose to collaborate with others:

5.       Remember the Milk is a robust personal task-managing tool. It’s probably most appropriate if you’re seeking a more comprehensive organizer for your school, work, and personal activities:

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Khan Academy, Comprehension, and Why Attitude Matters

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English: Salman Khan, famous for the Khan Acad...

Salman Khan of Khan Academy (Image via Wikipedia)

In “The Problem Solvers,” Steve Kolowich (Inside Higher Ed) discusses Salman Khan’s very popular learning website that offers tutorials and exercises to students. The whole IHE article is a worthwhile read; first, it’s exciting to learn about the ongoing engineering research behind Khan Academy’s academic exercise platform. Most intriguing to me, though, are Khan’s own views on the state of education in general. (He is, after all, referred to straightaway as “a fledgling voice of reform in higher education.”)

For one thing, Khan believes students have trouble retaining concepts, and sees this as a significant problem. Kolowich’s article explains Khan’s contention: that “completion [of academic programs] means nothing . . . without comprehension – a command of crucial skills that stick around long after the test, and the course, are over.”

This belief is manifested in Khan’s exercise and analytics project. But I’m happy to hear it wherever it’s spoken – for I believe it ties in closely with a student’s academic attitude. I’ve seen students of all ages who undervalue the prospect of an education; they seem to believe their classes are merely hoops to jump through for that diploma (“pay your fee, get your degree”), and seem disinclined to internalize that what they’re learning can have a real impact on their lives. This particular attitude can poison individual students, and sometimes the toxins spread through entire classrooms. If students see the class as a pesky hurdle, those students are more likely to view their prof as an unfriendly roadblock; to see no good reason to try their best; and perhaps, even, to have cavalier attitudes about academic dishonesty.

If students, on the other hand, truly understand that comprehension is critically important for their futures, those students also will understand the professors to be helpful, valuable resources (likewise tutors, librarians, and advisors); they’ll work hard to learn the maximum; and they will know that cheating is utterly pointless (as the saying goes, cheating in school is only cheating yourself).

I appreciate and celebrate Mr. Khan’s focus on comprehension. A student at any level will do well to keep the goal of comprehension and understanding as his or her personal learning lodestar.

Why Struggling in Class Can Be Good



A student once complained about my English Composition class and we had a long conversation. She said she had homework every night (that is, she was working more than apparently she was used to) and she was “struggling.” She had no particular complaints other than the class was hard; she did not have a learning disability; but she seemed to think “struggling” in general was a bad thing.

Her words still echo in my head because I remember getting a Twilight-Zone feeling: she’s struggling in college? How is that unexpected? I struggled in many or most of my college classes, as others have and continue to do – I wanted to say “join the club.” You struggle, and you work through it: study more, study differently, seek a tutor; do what you need to do to master the material. But clearly, this student understood “struggle” to be a bad thing, and a problem with my class.

Struggle is not bad. On the contrary, struggle is necessary and important.

You can expect that college coursework will be difficult. Expect to struggle, even to get frustrated; accept that you will make mistakes. That’s part of the learning process, and yes, it builds character.

In fact, the trait of grit has been shown to predict success. (See studies of Dr. Angela Duckworth for more information.) One aspect of grit is perseverance in the face of obstacles; as Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” So accept, even embrace, struggle and work through it; always keep your goals in sight. People with these habits and this mindset are likely to succeed.


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Spring bouquet of flowers

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This article (from Inside Higher Ed) discusses some colleges that make a scholarship contingent upon the recipient writing the donor a thank-you note.

Anytime is a good time to give thanks for academic support. Consider:

*Who helps/helped you prepare for college?
*Who has been your toughest teacher, the person who shared knowledge, expected excellence, and helped develop your work ethic?
*What role has your family played in helping you achieve your goals?

Now, take a moment to give thanks!

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