I teach English at my local community college, which puts me in constant contact with students of every age and circumstance who are hoping that a college degree will help them improve their lives. Every student who walks into my classroom on the first day has a high school diploma in hand and an expectation of success, but many start their college careers in dire straits because their academic preparation in public school was so incredibly deficient—and I am the one lucky enough to have to explain that to them.
Often my initial instructional challenge is to help students get over the shock of the height of the hill that they must climb to reach basic writing proficiency because they were pencil-whipped through their English classes in high school and sent into the world with a diploma not worth the ink and paper used to print it.
I have many examples I could discuss, but one in particular tends to make the case.
I often ask students to briefly introduce themselves to their classmates during our second class session—they will, after all, be spending a lot of time together. Several semesters ago I had a student in a developmental (read: remedial) composition class who introduced himself as a proud graduate who finished at the top of his high school’s college-prep program, which I found a touch startling because I had already read the writing sample he had completed during our first class session, which…was…just…awful.
Imagine if you will, a single block of words featuring occasional punctuation and comprised of random thoughts lacking any coherent sentence structure, organization or unifying ideas. It was obvious that both his high school standardized tests and the college’s placement testing had readily and correctly identified his need for a developmental composition course, which points to the essential role this type of testing plays in assessing academic outcomes. This was just as it should have been.
However, what was not as it should have been were the stellar grades he had received when he was attending public school. The complete lack of appropriate and reasonable feedback regarding his writing skills meant he was absolutely gobsmacked by his developmental writing placement when he reached college—despite his having finished at the “top” of his high school’s college-prep program.
I am less annoyed with his high school teachers, whom I am certain were under a great deal of pressure to keep passing him along in order to help keep up the school’s graduation rate, than I am with the defining ethos of both public education and our society as a whole: It is impermissible to ever say or do anything that will make someone feel “bad” about themselves.
This is harmful for adults because it dismisses the notions of responsibility and consequences from both our public and private discourse; it is a disaster for students in our public schools because they arrive at college prepared for nothing but academic failure.
Until we muster up the will to insist on the best from both public schools and the children and adolescents whose futures depend on learning to a global standard of excellence, we will continue to kneecap generation after generation by building up a false and destructive sense of self-esteem in students instead of doing the hard and gritty work of actual education.
By the way, the student I spoke of earlier ended up dropping my class and going home to live with his parents—another success story for our dysfunctional system of public education, which is a funhouse mirror reflection of the dysfunctional society it inhabits.