Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

From 1984 until 2002, I worked as a high school English teacher in rural upstate South Carolina, a relatively impoverished small town where I was born and also attended schools. For many of those years, I also coached (girls volleyball, boys golf, girls and boys soccer) and taught journalism along with sponsoring the school’s newspaper and literary magazine.

Teaching often meant long days from about 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 or 11 at night when I had away soccer matches and had to wait outside the school for every player to be picked up by their parents.

Over my career as a high school English teacher, I kept a record of my work assigning and responding to writing by my students; I averaged reading and responding to about 4000 formal essays (multiple-draft, extended writing) and 6000 journals (one-draft, shorter pieces) per year. Regardless of their level or year in high school, my students completed about 16 essays per year with all of them rewritten at least once (most did many more than one revision), and I typically had a total of about 100-125 students per academic year.

Most K-12 teachers could share something similar to the above, but since this post (as the title suggests) offers a critical look at how high school fails students entering college, I want to start with a clear caveat that K-12 teaching is extremely demanding, and most teachers are asked to do way too much with way too little support or time—and possibly more damning, over the last three decades, most teachers are being held accountable for truly awful teaching and testing.

None the less, I want here to examine what I have witnessed, and continue to witness, in the college students I have been teaching for 16 years now, students in a selective university, and thus ones who can easily be described as extremely successful students.

My fall courses, as is typical, include first-year writing seminars and an introductory education course. From those classes, here are a few examples of why I regularly have to discuss with college students that high school has failed them:

  • In my writing seminar, I start by having students complete a writing exercise in which they mimic the form of a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. When I give the assignment, I clearly identify the passage as a chapter from a novel, but many students submitting their passage identify the text as a poem.
  • My foundations education course includes as a supplemental text The Poverty and Education Reader, edited by Paul C. Gorski and Julie Landsman. Students are required to choose 2-3 chapters from every section of the volume and to write brief reflections for each. A student sent me her reflections; throughout, she began each entry with “in this short story, the narrator”—although the volume is a collection of non-fiction (and scholarly) essays.
  • An early class session with the first-year students examines academic writing at the college level and how the disciplines (often arranged as departments in colleges and separate colleges in universities) have a wide variety of expectations and forms for writing. When I put up a list of disciplines, I ask which of them do the students assume use MLA for the stylesheet and citations—prompting most students to admit they think MLA is the only citation guide that exists.
  • I introduce my foundations education students to critical pedagogy and Marxist scholarly lenses, which leads often to students admitting that they have no real idea what the differences are among socialism and communism (and Marxism) as terms. As we examine these ideas, we also confront that students typically have only a shallow understanding of capitalism and democracy.
  • A few of us teaching first-year writing seminars this semester are sharing an assignment for essay one. To help students try to navigate the complex terms at the center of the assignment, we are using Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” as a model. I also had my students complete diversity awareness quizzes created by Paul Gorski. As I discussed the assignment, I cautioned my students about making sweeping claims such as “most people think” by noting that a significant percentage of the world population (about half) includes Chinese and Indian people who have beliefs and experiences quite unlike what my students know. In one of Gorski’s questions, he notes that only 5% of the world population is in the U.S. (who has 25% of the world’s prisoners). One student, barely able to hold back that she was incredulous about that data, asked how I knew that information.

I want to return now to a point I made quickly above: these examples are from college students who have been extremely successful students. Early and often, then, I ask my students to unpack what being a student means, and then to weigh that against the expectations of college academic behavior.

One way I do that is assigning The Transition to College Writing, by Keith Hjortshoj, and I also have student read Adele Scheele’s “The Good Student Trap.”

Among the examples above, I believe the most significant way that high school fails students is grounded in that teachers and students are far too overwhelmed with accountability and coverage.

One of the odd patterns of advanced education is that we often expose students early to huge and sweeping bodies of knowledge (world history, American literature) and then as they go farther in their education, the course material becomes narrower, and thus deeper. For the English part of my undergraduate degree, I took a British literature survey course in the first two years, but a senior college English course explored only one author, William Butler Yeats.

Both teachers and students in high school, then, are victims of covering far too much way too superficially.

And thus, when I ask my first-year students what novels they read in high school, several often reply with The Crucible or Hamlet, both, of course, are plays, not novels. The blur of assigned books have left them without nuance or clarity in what they have or have not learned.

Yet at the college level, and then in the disciplines, slow and careful are far more important; a successful college student like an effective scholar will confront all material with skepticism, stepping back from assumptions and seeking ways to define and clarify terms before gathering credible evidence in order to make claims.

Being a good student too often is mostly about being dutiful, compliant, and superficial.

Another way to think about the inadequacy of high school is that it fails to help students overcome provincialism (rejecting provincialism is central to progressivism espoused by John Dewey and Lou LaBrant, and then critical pedagogy—all of which argued the foundational importance of literacy in that journey).

Provincialism is sort of an uninformed arrogance—determining Truth and the World based on one’s experiences absent the evidence of history and thought or the variety of experiences beyond one’s immediate geography and tribe.

College and the disciplines value people starting with intellectual humility and skepticism, and then requires behaviors that are slow, purposeful, and careful.

Let me conclude with a couple thoughts.

First, this tension between high school and college, I believe, can be solved by embracing critical pedagogy at all levels of education, inviting and mentoring students to read and then re-read the world, to write and then re-write the world.

These moves require that students have some greater degree of autonomy than they currently do, but it also requires a reimagining of what we think our content entails (not prescribed standards that are codified by the state)—a move away from content as fixed knowledge and toward a greater emphasis on how and why students engage with knowledge.

Finally, as an educator with over thirty years teaching from 9th grade through graduate courses, I readily acknowledge that some of what I am addressing is up for debate in terms of a wide range of mental, psychological, and emotional developments from childhood into adulthood. With that in mind, I am certain that students need and deserve the sorts of experiences and expectations common in college much earlier, at least by 9th grade.

A few falls ago, one of my first-year writing students eventually couldn’t hold back her exasperation any longer and held forth in class about how she was misled by being trained to memorize and use only MLA. Her frustration was warranted, but can and should be avoided.

What continues to guide me as a teacher of any level is that to teach English or any content is to teach students, first and foremost.

In 1961, Lou LaBrant observed: “Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire.”

Too often in 2017, this rings true—failing our students moving from high into college and then beyond.