What’s Wrong With Our Schools? Troubled Path to College

November 15, 2014 Updated: October 8, 2018

This is the third part of a series exploring the decades long national reform of public education, and will attempt to answer the question of whether Common Core actually prepares students for college.

NEW YORK—Year after year we hear the cry: Our children are graduating high schools unprepared—for life, for citizenship, for college. 

For decades our nation’s leaders have mustered reforms to remedy this problem. The most current one swirls around Common Core, a set of education standards pushed from the federal level with a promise of “college and career readiness.”

As college is still the surest way to maintain or bump up one’s social status, a promise of solid college preparation appeals to the masses. But before we delve into the question of whether Common Core merits the hype, let’s look at whether our high schools need it in the first place.

Well, we have the numbers.

After enrolling in any college under the City University of New York (CUNY), for example, each student takes a short “placement” test. The results determine whether a student is ready for the college’s coursework. And those results are cheerless.

More than 4 in 10 students are deemed not ready for math courses. Three in 10 don’t write well enough and 2 in 10 lack in reading, according to 2010 CUNY data.

Such students are recommended to take the remediation classes that review high school material while bearing no college credits.

The problem is the placement tests are not particularly accurate. 

Columbia School of International and Public Affairs students graduated today. Former National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon was the featured speaker, May 22, 2014. (Allen Xie, Epoch Times)
Graduated Columbia School of International and Public Affairs students on May 22, 2014. (Allen Xie, Epoch Times)

Columbia University invested in multiple studies of remediation only to find the tests misplace as many as a third of the students—that is—put them in courses too easy or too hard for them, or recommend them for remediation they don’t need.

In fact, Columbia found remediation courses usually have a negative effect on students’ college completion, if any effect at all. Its January paper concluded remediation is “not achieving its intended purpose: to improve outcomes for underprepared students.”

In the end, the studies found that students who ignored the remediation classes and enrolled in standard college courses right away achieved almost the same results as their peers who were not recommended for remediation.

So even though remediation may not be the strongest argument for Common Core, the idea of Common Core aligning high school material with college demands sounds reasonable on its own.

But can a single standard prepare everyone for everything? After all, Common Core mastermind David Coleman hinted there isn’t much room left after putting Common Core in place.

“We do not have the resources, leisure, or time to invest in a whole new set of initiatives around these Common Core standards,” Coleman said during his keynote speech at the 2011 Institute for Learning Senior Leadership Meeting.

Luckily, one of the largest benefactors of the Common Core initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, paid another nonprofit, the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), to answer the question: Does the Common Core align with what colleges need?

In 2010 EPIC surveyed over 1,800 college lecturers, mostly teaching freshmen courses, from across the nation.

The Common Core prescribes what knowledge and skills are necessary on each level from kindergarten to 12th grade, focusing on reading, writing, and math. 

The EPIC survey asked the lecturers about the 313 skills and knowledge points, so-called anchor standards that Common Core expects of 11th- and 12th-graders.

Out of 113 anchor standards for reading and writing, most lecturers found 27 were applicable, no matter what course they taught. They can be summarized in five words: grammar, vocabulary, comprehension, collaboration, and presentation.

If one wants to go to college, one must know how to speak and write in correct English, comprehend fairly complex speech and text, and work well with others.

Does that mean mastering such skills is all one needs? Not by a long shot. Unfortunately, most other necessary skills and knowledge heavily depend on which course one takes.

Students work on their senior year physics assignment at the City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology in Brooklyn on Wednesday. (Petr Svab/Epoch Times)
Students work on their senior year physics assignment at the City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology in Brooklyn on Wednesday. (Petr Svab/Epoch Times)

English Language Arts (ELA) lecturers placed emphasis on comprehending literature and writing argumentative, explanatory, and narrative essays, including how engaging, convincing, and esthetically pleasing they are. But most other lecturers had little interest in such skills.

On the other hand, science, math, computer technology, business, and health care lecturers were interested in reading and writing strictly structured research papers. They emphasized logical sequence, claims, counterclaims, reasons, evidence, and correct terminology.

In math the polarity was even sharper.

The only category of Common Core math that gathered significant support across the board is called Mathematical Practices. But it doesn’t cover any specific knowledge and consists of eight abstract generally appealing phrases.

No. 1, for example, states: “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” No. 5: “Use appropriate tools strategically.” And Number 7: “Look for and make use of structure.”

Speaking of actual math knowledge, the majority of the math anchor standards were prerequisites for less than 5 percent of the 1,900 surveyed college courses.

Even one of the most useful math standards—solving linear equations—was only a prerequisite for about 20 percent of college courses.

Interestingly, not even half of computer technology lecturers cared for most of the math standards. 

So does that mean high school math is useless? That depends.

Most of high school geometry, for example, was virtually useless—a prerequisite for less than 2 percent of college courses. But the few lecturers who wanted geometry largely expected the incoming students to already know it.

Moreover, more advanced math, like calculus, is not even covered in the Common Core but technical colleges, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are known to require it.

Students pursuing technology institutions have to depend on their schools’ offering advanced math classes and hope the crucial material won’t be cut by “aligning” the curricula to the Common Core.

(Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
(Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

What is the merit though of teaching everyone intermediate math, like functions, logarithms, and quadratic equations? All of those are part of the Algebra I and II high school curriculum.

Supposedly, math makes you smart.

“[S]tudents who complete Algebra II are more than twice as likely to graduate from college compared to students with less mathematical preparation,” states a 2008 report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

The premise is the better one does at math, the more brilliant one is overall. Even though the knowledge itself is largely useless.

Ultimately, the EPIC survey suggests Common Core does fairly well at preparing students for college. Though a large chunk of it may be useless, depending on which path one takes. 

All of the benefits of the Common Core also only apply when one actually masters it.

And that’s another problem: It seems that few actually do. New York tests of Common Core results show only about one in three is deemed proficient and on the path to college.

And as for real mastery, only one in seven got the highest mark (scaled 1–4) in math and only 1 in 12 reached the highest bar in English.

Is it possible that we’re unrealistic in expecting every student to master subject-specific requirements of a wide range of colleges? And is that the right measure of our education?

Carol Dahir, professor of school counseling at New York Institute of Technology, spent her career helping children get to college—first as a school guidance counselor, later as a school counseling administrator, and now training other school counselors.

“It’s about strengths,” she said.

Dahir remembered her college days and the single semester of calculus she took. “I felt like I was going to my death,” she said. “We all have that and yet we do ok.”

According to Dahir, New York had “pretty decent” education standards even before the Common Core. The problem was many students didn’t feel like reaching them.

What’s blocking students from reaching college is a lack of resiliency and motivation—”seeing the future,” as Dahir put it.

“Even the kids who mouth off to you … if you take the time to figure out what’s going on in their head, there’s something they want to do with their lives and it’s not always selling drugs,” she said. “We need people that are going to take the time to do that.”

And that’s exactly what’s already working.

New Visions, a nonprofit helping over 38,000 city high schoolers, created an “early warning system” showing whether or not a student is on the right track. But not just on the right track to the Common Core, but on the path to a college or a job the student wants.

The Young Women’s’ Leadership Network serves some 13,000 students in the city, providing one college counselor to every 100 students, a far lower ratio than city public schools usually offer. Participants earn more than double the four-year college degrees of their peers.

Student Success Centers train some high schoolers in navigating the college admission process and then pay them $80 a week to guide their peers to college. About 90 percent of students served by the center at Brooklyn’s Franklin K. Lane campus were accepted to college in 2012.

The Institute for Student Achievement assigns a group of students to every member of a school’s faculty for guidance and personalized learning. Participants were 50 percent less likely to drop out of high school than their peers.

Finally, Summer Bridge to College Program trains alumni of city high schools to return for a summer and help new graduates to register for colleges, apply for financial aid, and get ready for their first moment of college in the fall.

It seems that more than be readied for everything, teens need help to find and pursue what they actually want.

In the first part of this series we talked about the birth of the reform movement 30 years ago and its development currently symbolized by the Common Core, a set of education standards promising “college and career readiness.”

The second part explored the question of whether the Common Core indeed delivers on its promise of “career readiness.” 

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab