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Why aren’t some high school grads prepared for college?

By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, June 7th, 2012 at 5:51 pm in Education.

Matt Krupnick, our higher education reporter, says high-school graduates’ lack of math and English skills is among the most serious problems facing colleges these days.

He wants to look at why this is happening and how it’s affecting colleges, starting in pre-K or kindergarten and trying to find where the breakdowns are occurring.

Here are some questions he asked me to pose to blog readers:

“Are young kids simply not learning to read?

Or does a lack of parental involvement cripple that learning?

Is there something later in their education – junior high or high school – that is causing problems?

And why are these kids graduating in the first place?”

He says that in college, students in remedial classes are far less likely to graduate, especially in the most basic classes. College math teachers report that lack of reading comprehension causes major problems in remedial math classes, where some students can’t work out simple word problems, Krupnick says.

Why do you think some high school grads are not well-prepared for college?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

40 Responses to “Why aren’t some high school grads prepared for college?”

  1. g Says:

    My own undereducated guess:

    Last question first. Why are these kids graduating in the first place?

    Parents! I use my own circumstances (moving a lot) as an example. The ONLY thing that made me work hard at each new school was the lure of advancing; the fear of being held back.

    My Mother could not have cared less about my grades, but would have thrown me off a bridge if I embarrassed her by failing. Also, she did not have the education herself to help me, even if she wanted to.

    Where does the breakdown begin?

    Don’t scores already indicate a breakdown in Middle School?

    Pubescence itself may not greatly affect cognitive development, but lack of both can certainly throw an 11 year old into a tailspin.

    I believe 6th graders are, in general, not ready to be thrust in with the budding hormones of 7th, 8th graders. Nor are they usually emotionally ready to knuckle down to that next level of study.

    As I recall, 7th/8th grade was, by far, my hardest study time EVER and I barely squeeked by! By the time I was given some choice in high school, I was taking the easiest courses available (business/bookkeeping) to avoid the threat of harder math.

    I luckily spent 9th in a school of 7th, 8th, 9th. It was ideal. 9th allowed for a LOT of catch-up, without being lured away from serious studies by trying to be just like the “cute/cool” older kids.

    When a kid is “forced” up into the middle and upper grades it becomes more obvious that they do not yet have the mental maturity to actually understand what they have been taught so far.

    You can teach an ape hand signals to ask for a banana, and promote him up a grade to learn to ask for a particular toy—Great.

    But he will not know “why” the hand signal works, nor will he ever have any concept that it was designed for the non-hearing.

    So, lack of parental help, for whatever reason, and immature minds being FORCED ‘up’ before they are ready.

  2. vindex Says:

    I talked to some Elementary School teachers about this. They said, that over their careers, they have gradually seen students come into school less and less prepared. They believe that parents are talking less with their kids, they are reading less to them, they are interacting less in an unstructured way. There is way too much programing, video, classes, and less one-one time. They also have noticed that this trend has accelerated recently with Parents being on their phones/Ipads constantly, instead of talking with their children. I think this continues now to the Junior High/High School level with students consuming way too much electronic media and being involved in way too many outside activities. Some High School students I know are “programmed” eighty hours a week. Between school, sports, volunteering… When do they have time to sit down and learn and not just “get it done.”
    What it comes down to is parents being lazy and not being parents. There is no way a high school student should be this busy. There is no reason a little 4 year old should be in four different classes every week with someone else leading it. Children need their parents to be parents and we’d be better off.

  3. Anon Says:

    Vindex –
    Of course that is the problem –
    Teachers are doing a fabulous job and it is the fault of the parent. But by golly as soon as a parent gets involved they are called a helicopter parent and our education system doesn’t like that either.
    I am sorry but the culture of teaching has become such that it is a constant stream of complaining about pay, benefits, kids, time, administrators, uninvolved parents, involved parents, etc…
    There are great teachers out there but in general the system is failing.

  4. Anon Says:

    And so the debate begins! Parents say the school and teachers blame the parents. The way students are being educated is going down hill. Our district has lowered the standards (200 credit to graduate) all surounding districts are 230 – 240 one even higher if I recall the artical correctly. I know that I spend a ton of time with my students and gaming is limited yet I still had to teach my kids how to write a book report. Yes in some cases you can blame an absent parent but studies show that if a child is never read to they will learn unless there is a disability preventing it. The materials that our wonderful state uses are terrible. Parents are angry, teachers are angry and no one at the administrative level is doing a good job. I have heard countless time teachers and admins say “you need to lower your expectations” so who is at fault….The entire system. Private schools are 1 to 1 1/2 years ahead of public school kids in the MDUSD area.

    Vindex, your argument only stands if you know that the majority of parents are doing this. I do not believe for a second that most parents are to busy on their I phones and I pads. I don’t believe that most parents do not spend time with their kid. And most team sports are parents being the coaches. I think you need to read some studies and then comment.

  5. Anon Says:

    English – Basic English language rules don’t seem to be taught until mastered. Concepts are introduced, reviewed, move on. Private schools excel here, from my experience in a private elementary.

    Math – In MDUSD, my kids were taught, or introduced, to a wide variety of math problems early. In Kindergarten, they were figuring out what percentage of the class liked red grapes vs. green grapes. I questioned why they were doing this in Kindergarten. The teaching process at the time (1990’s) was that if they were introduced to all the concepts of math beginning at an early age, they would learn and understand math at an earlier age. So each year, the basics for that year were rushed, and then new concepts were introduced without mastering the basics.

    I think kids would do much better if they learned the basics from the beginning, in a slow repetitive manner. Instead it is rushed with lots of different concepts, but nothing mastered. Now, many don’t understand basic math, move on to high school math (and watch lots of movies in math class, at least my kids did – the teacher is gone, so hopefully it has changed), and don’t understand, but get a passing grade. Now at the college level, they can’t perform due to a lack of knowledge.

    Yes, the teachers are all very nice, and work hard. However, students are lacking in basic education which we are now seeing at the college level.

    Have to agree with #3. I was an involved parent, yet my kids struggle with basic math and English skills, why? I even used Sylvan, which received a strange reception from the teachers…really didn’t like that I looked for additional help in teaching my children. I should have hired Sylvan sooner than later, but why is that necessary?

  6. Anon Says:

    I am paying $35/hr for a group lesson with a tutor who lives across the District and has 70 other MDUSD high school students being tutored in math and science. My student went from struggling in Pre-calc to getting an A. Something is very wrong.

  7. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Although Rose Lock says the district is focusing on “first, best instruction,” the need for tutors shows that may not be happening – especially if subs are doing the first instruction.

  8. Anon Says:

    From one Anon to another @#6
    Why do you think the group lesson has been helpful for your child in improving their grade? As a teacher, I’m always amazed when parents will ask me about getting a tutor for their child, and their child has never made the effort to get any help (even during class time when it is given) from me.

  9. Anon Says:

    @Anon #8. Amazing that you as a teacher are amazed that a parent asks for tutoring to help their student, and you did not reach out to the student who needed your help but didn’t ask.

    Many times students will not ask for help, even at the college level – top reason why kids drop out – they didnt’ get help. Is there a reason the teacher will not help the student without being asked by the student? Why won’t the teacher call home and explain that the student is falling behind and needs help? Why not offer your help, offer references for tutors to the parents?

    Why do they do better? The tutor converses with them, corrects their papers and can see where they are struggling to help them, and then provides the help where they need it.

    Perhaps you are unapproachable to all of your students, which is not bad, just different personalities. So get them help.

  10. wycagirl Says:

    Anon appears to be on the right track. After years of teaching, I feel the problem lies with the standards required for each grade level AND all the testing that is being done. Classrooms are spending at least 15% of instruction time, testing. In Calif, the standards are too much and beyond the normal student. Teachers are forced to teach all the standards for the class. This means no time to re-teach and make sure all kids know the concepts. They just touch on the skills, hoping they remember something. We need to go back to the basic READ, WRITE and ARITHMATIC. If the kids have a solid foundation going into 7th grade, then we won’t see so many of them behind.

  11. Doctor J Says:

    @the two Anons: Why do we have all of this unused SIG money for the persistently low achieving schools — why isn’t it being put to use to tutor these children ? We have 3 SIG elementary schools in their second year of SIG and there are millions unspent. Why ? I have posted this before and apologize to those who have read it, but its relevant to the anon debate:
    “At SBE meeting, Chris Swenson, Director of Improvement and Accountability, reported that CDE is visiting all SIG sites, that a few are fully implemented but most are lagging in implementation [and its year 2 of 3 year grant]. Based on Spending Reports just filed by MDUSD, it would appear that MDUSD is sorely lacking in implementation since through the end of 3rd Quarter, 2 of 3 schools and the district are not spending the grant money as they promised [I know, so what else is new].

    Latest SIG, Cohort 1 Spending reports through 3/31/12 [3rd Quarter, Year 2] – filed by MDUSD with CDE on 4/27. Tried to put into spreadsheet but blog not accept it. Student Population numbers taken from CDE 2011/12 Enrollment numbers provided by MDUSD.

    I would hope Theresa and every parent and member of the public would ask Steven Lawrence and Rose Lock: Why isn’t MDUSD and the SIG Schools spending the Grant Money according to the SIG plans approved by the Board, CDE and the US Dept of Education ? When the API numbers come out, there may be some real disappointments.

    Here is summary with rounded numbers:

    Bel Air — Student Population 452
    Spent through 3/31/12 in Year 2, 2011/12 $804,000
    Total Available in Year 2, 2011/12 $1,701,000
    Amount Spent per Pupil through 3/31 $1,778
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 $897,000
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 per pupil $1,984
    API Gain in 1st SIG Year 2010/11 +25 671

    Rio Vista — Student Population 426
    Spent through 3/31/12 in Year 2, 2011/12 $340,000
    Total Available in Year 2, 2011/12 $450,000
    Amount Spent per Pupil through 3/31 $798
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 $110,000
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 per pupil $258
    API Gain in 1st SIG Year 2010/11 +66 735

    Shore Acres — Student Population 517
    Spent through 3/31/12 in Year 2, 2011/12 $887,000
    Total Available in Year 2, 2011/12 $1,965,000
    Amount Spent per Pupil through 3/31 $1,715
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 $1,078,000
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 per pupil $2,085
    API Gain in 1st SIG Year 2010/11 +13 672

    District — Student Population total 3 SIG Schools 1395
    Spent through 3/31/12 in Year 2, 2011/12 $407,000
    Total Available in Year 2, 2011/12 $1,377,000
    Amount Spent per Pupil through 3/31 $291
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 $970,000
    Left to spend in Year 2, 2011/12 per pupil $695
    District Wide API Gain in 1st SIG Year 2010/11 +2 786”

    Rose Lock and SASS refuse to address this issue but instead give Theresa dismissive answers that don’t say anything. We need some answers.

  12. Doctor J Says:

    Rumors are circulating that STAR test results may be out by the end of this month which would put API numbers out by mid July. If so, some of Lawrence’s planned Principal appointments or “musical chairs” may be quite embarassing based on these numbers, Bill Morones included. What if YVHS API drops significantly ? How will Lawrence explain Morones appointment to be Director of Secondary with a lousy record of student achievement ? It will make Cheryl Hansen look like a prophetess.

  13. Theresa Harrington Says:

    I left a voicemail for Morones before I wrote my story, giving him the opportunity to respond to Hansen’s critique of his record of achievement. He did not respond.

  14. Anon Says:

    I understand the points you make. I do tell parents at back to school night about some tutoring resources that are available. I also tell them that I’m available for help after school, and I’m free. But, that means the student(s) need to come see me about doing that. I do have some that take advantage of that. They say it is very helpful, but it tends to only happen very sporadically (usually just before test day). I understand that people can say that you could “do more” by actively going after kids. I understand this point. But, for me, with most of my students being juniors and seniors, I believe that part of their growing up (both personally and academically) is learning to take advantage of offered help. I try to emphasize to the students that they need to take some personal responsibility for their learning. So in that respect, I tell the students from day one that I won’t “chase them down”, but they can always ask for help. They know where I am, and when I’m there. I understand some people will say this sounds harsh, but I constantly hear people say how today’s kids are so much more “advanced” than previous generations, but I will disagree with that. I find this generation to be less responsible about their own lives because I think they have had people watch out for them (or do it for them) to the point they don’t take ownership of their own development.

  15. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#13 Why didn’t you put that in the story ? That’s the point, Morones has no record of achievement — in fact he has a poor record of student achievement. Morones’ record was simply to stand up at Lawrence’s request to speak against the CVCHS charter. Morenes did, and he got rewarded. Morones has had more jobs than there are hop-scotch squares. What has not been explored is the Morenes/Nugent connection. Less than two weeks apart in 2010, both are appointed principals coming from the Elk Grove School District. I wonder how Florin High did in API while Morones was principal ? Not too good. Under Morones leadership, Florin dropped 9 API points to 699, with big drops in almost all subgroups. Another stellar appointment by Steven Lawrence. Read it for yourself.

  16. Theresa Harrington Says:

    I only had a limited amount of space. I was trying to allow him to present his side. But I did not want to infer anything from his silence. It’s possible he didn’t get the message in time.

  17. Anon Says:

    Anon #14,

    I have been quite frustrated at what I see as the punitive nature of many teachers. Very similar to the stance you are taking. Sometimes it seems to me that it is more important to a teacher to teach these kids a lesson about life than it is to teach them the subject they have been assigned to teach. Do you see that?

    I find it offensive when you have teachers who penalize students for being late but they themselves sit at their desks for the first 10 minutes of class saying nothing. They penalize students for turning in a late paper, and in fact often have a zero tolerence policy in this regard, but think nothing of taking 6-8 weeks to grade the papers (including a last minute posting of the grades at the end of the quarter.) I can tell you stories of students asking a teacher for help only to hear “I just went over it in class weren’t you listening.” I wouldn’t ask again. Some teachers would be horrified if every student in their class got an “A” in fact one of my children were told “only two kids in the class should get an A because this is a college level course.” Education isn’t supposed to be about a bell curve of acheivement, it should be about every student learning. A teacher should be thrilled if every student got an “A”. Every test with a “C” or below should be taken over…not for grade inflation… for learning.

    A teacher’s responsibility is to teach my child. I will worry about making sure they learn life’s lessons. Clearly the kids attending tutoring sessions are doing so at not only a monetary cost but at a cost of personal time. That tells me that the personal motivation is not lacking… or the tutor would not make a difference.

  18. Anon Says:

    If teachers are posting here during school hours…well, question answered.

  19. Theresa Harrington Says:

    The list of district teachers who received preliminary layoff notices is in pages 4-6 of this document:

  20. anon Says:

    I read the document,but don’t understand it. Can you expand on it at all? Is this just the standard document that is produced yearly listing layoffs, or is some other sort of action being taken?
    Thank you!

  21. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Yes, I believe it is the standard document that is produced yearly listing layoffs.

    It was in reponse to this standard document from the district:

    This is a standard legal process that happens every year, when those teachers who are identified for layoff can request a hearing to verify whether they have less seniority than others with the same credentials.

  22. Jim Says:

    Theresa, you ask, “Why aren’t HS grads prepared for college?” You could as easily ask, “Why aren’t third graders ready to read?” or “Why aren’t sixth graders ready for middle school?” There is substantial underachievement across all grade levels in our public schools, and there has been for a very long time. Even in earlier generations we routinely graduated (or allowed to drop out) many students (probably 30-40%, maybe more) who couldn’t have performed well in college — or in any job requiring significant literacy or analytical skills. It has always been that way.

    What has changed is that now, almost none of those “left-behinds” can find work. Those jobs have just disappeared, not only in the U.S. but in all of the world’s advanced economies. So we try to send more and more students to “college”, where, not surprisingly, the completion rates are even LOWER than the approximately 70% of students who complete HS. Yet the alternatives to “going to college” are actually less funded, less promoted, and less supported than when I was in high school. We have everyone from the President to the Gates Foundation telling us that every student ought to go to college, and so too little attention is paid to providing other kinds of post-secondary training and support for students who could have productive lives and fulfilling careers without graduating from a four-year college.

    We have a public education system that is fundamentally ill-equipped to educate many, many of its students. Because it does manage to educate, to some minimal degree, the children of the more affluent, vocal segments of society, it has been allowed to continue being unaccountable to the rest. But what more and more people are coming to realize, is that we cannot have a prosperous inclusive society if one half or more of its members are no longer able to earn a living.

  23. Anon Says:

    To follow up on Jim’s comment @#22, according to a NY Times article, just over 30% of the population in the US have a bachelor’s degree. Statistically speaking, getting a college degree results in better earning power. I think that is the main reason we way that everyone should have a college degree. Realistically speaking, though, I don’t think getting a college degree is realistic for everyone. That means there needs to be viable alternatives for those people not wanting to (or not capable of) go to college. (I’m sure I’ll get clobbered for insinuating that not everyone is capable of going to college, but if you really think that is true, you should get into teaching, especially at the high school level) Our present system is not very well set up for this, and maybe more effort needs to get directed that way. People talk about the academic performance of other countries, but most (if not all) of those countries have dual educational systems where students have to “test into” the more academically based college track fairly early in the educational process. We have nothing at all like that. I think this leads to that “one size fits all” approach, that hasn’t really produced great resulst across the board.

  24. Anon Says:

    How are the colleges determining the inadequacy of the students? I’ll assume that is in the form of a placement test. This implies there is somewhat of a “line in the sand” that these schools have drawn. I think if you look at the education system before the jump to college, there isn’t much (if any) of a “line in the sand”. I think the public education system leading up to the college level is quite wimpy in its enforcement of the idea of “earn your advancement”. It’s more based on “just show up and we’ll pass you along”. This doesn’t help kids bring the effort and focus they should for real learning to happen. And, the idea of repeating a class (especially math classes) is looked upon as failure. But, repeating a course might be the best thing for some students, especially those that show weak understanding at the base/core levels (like basic Algebra and English). From what I have seen, schools do not have a very strong voice in trying to implement this. I think most adults would say “That sounds fine. But, not for my kid.” As a result of this, I think we will always be stuck in vicious cycle of non-achievement.

  25. anon Says:

    @Anon #23,
    I will be the first to NOT clobber you for your statement, as I wholeheartedly agree that not all students should go to college. I think that notion has done the biggest disservice to students. Students who have the desire, and the ability (academically speaking), should definitely go to college. However, it is not the right path for everyone, and by shoving that down every students throat as the “only” way, is setting them up for failure. There are varying degrees of intellect, drive, and abilities present amongst our student bodies, and the one size fits all doesn’t work.
    As time goes on, many more jobs will continue to be outsourced. There will be an ongoing need for skilled labor, as it is just not possible to outsource jobs such as plumbers, mechanics, etc. Why have these jobs become “less desirable” in the eyes of society? There is nothing wrong with any of those careers. I do not have the slightest idea when it comes to fixing my car, and I am thrilled that there are professionals who can do it for me.
    I suggest everyone watch “The Race to Nowhere”, it touches on the topics we are discussing here.

    I see way too many kids “not get it” in lower grade school, but in order for the teacher to keep up with the schedule, he or she has to keep plowing ahead. Now, with 30+ kids per class, it just simply doesn’t work. Before I start hearing “I had 30 kids in my class when I was a kid, and we did just fine”, be aware that today’s third grade curriculum is what I learned in 5th and 6th grade back in the early 70’s. It is much harder on kids at earlier ages, and once they become frustrated, they tend to shut down, thus starting the downward spiral.
    Until the state starts making grade school curriculum developmentally appropriate, this insanity will continue.

  26. Anon Says:

    It is a teacher’s responsbility to ensure all of their students are learning the the material being taught.

    If a student has not approached you for help, it is still your responsiblity as a teacher to ensure that student receives the help they need to learn the material, or find other methods to teach them yourself. Otherwise, you have failed teaching a student and each of these failures should be noted on your performance evaluation.

  27. anon Says:

    Yes, teachers must make every effort to ensure their students are learning the material being taught. Realistically, that is next to impossible, due to many aspects beyond their control.
    What about the kid that comes 30 minutes late everyday? Must that teacher stop, and reiterate the entire lesson missed? What about the kid who never turns in his homework? What about the kid who’s parents simply don’t give a damn about school, other than as free daycare? Yes, I have witnessed all of this in Kindergarten and first grade.
    What about the kids who do get it, who do their homework, who show up on time. Do they deserve to suffer at the whim of the kids who are falling behind?
    I am absolutely not referring to kids (and parents)who are making every effort to learn. There do need to be programs available to help them, but what? When? What if they can’t stay after school due to bussing? Where will the funding come from? Will the schools even allow parent volunteers to do it?
    To your last paragraph, I partially agree, but it is a very slippery slope. Please read this parody, it sums up my opinions:

  28. Anon Says:

    We were talking about the kid sitting in class, not asking for help, and the teacher is amazed the parents ask for tutors/help. Do we need a program/funding for every problem? Why would funding/transportation be needed for a teacher to ask a student to see them after class and put a plan together to improve their grade? Is funding/transportation needed for the teacher to call the parent and let them know their child is behind and how would they like to help address the issue? No repsonse, or a rude parent, refer them to the administration.

    Kids who are late, disruptive should have consequences and their parents as well. Detention, parents will need to arrange transportation, miss instruction, receive a ‘0’ for the day and cannot be made up due to their behavior, not a reflection on the teacher, the student. Documentation would be in the grade book and in the students absences.

    A student attending class everyday and getting a ‘D’ or ‘F’ is unacceptable. A teacher with 40+ kids failing (high school) is a sign something is wrong with the teaching method and needs to be addressed by the administration and/or reflected in their paycheck.

  29. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s a Hometown Hero story about James Wogan, who tries to help homeless students, foster youth and other struggling students get the support they need to succeed in Mt. Diablo district schools:

  30. Theresa Harrington Says:

    East San Jose parents are pushing for alternatives to low-performing middle schools:

  31. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s a story about discipline problems at Oak Grove Middle School, which shows that constant disruptive behavior prevents student learning:

    Oak Grove is the lowest-performing middle school in the district and one of the lowest-performing middle schools in the state. Glenbrook Middle School, which closed last year, was also one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. Some students from that school are now at Oak Grove, which has caused “issues,” according to one teacher.

  32. Theresa Harrington Says:

    On a positive note, here’s a Northgate HS grad who was very well prepared for the Berklee College of Music, after winning many awards in the Northgate HS Jazz Band:
    Adding to his list of accomplishments, he was just named a “2012 Yamaha Young Performing Artist” for jazz trumpet.

  33. anon Says:

    Thanks for sharing about Josh’s music accomplishments. I am assuming he benefited from the opportunity to participate in music classes in elementary school. Just one more thing that has been taken away from today’s students.
    The current students in MDUSD do not ever get the opportunity to expand their horizons through their daily education, and it truly breaks my heart.
    And yes, I do everything in my power to change it, and will keep trying!

  34. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Anon: Although I’m not positive, I believe you’re right. I know that Josh was also very involved in the music program at Foothill MS and he even taught trumpet to middle-schoolers after he got to high school.

  35. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is a story about the lessons learned — and optimism — of three Clayton Valley HS seniors who advocated for the charter conversion to bring better educational opportunities to students who will follow them:

  36. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is a West Ed report about how to better prepare students for college:

  37. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is a story about “summer learning loss,” which can set students back, if they aren’t challenged during the summer:

    And here’s a photo slideshow featuring students from Riverview Middle School who traveled to Sacramento today for a National Summer Learning Day rally:

  38. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s a blog post that compares Contra Costa County districts’ graduation and dropout rates:

  39. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s a funding competition that could help boost student achievement, but it looks like MDUSD did not apply:

  40. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s information about a new Biliteracy Seal, which could help improve college readiness:

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