For once, blame the student

Colleges keep complaining that students are coming to them unprepared. Instead of raising admissions standards, however, they keep accepting mediocre students lest cuts have to be made in faculty and administration. —Patrick WelshFor once, blame the student (Yahoo!/USAToday (will probably expire))

This essay is written by a high school teacher frustrated by the lack of motivation many of his students show.

Every year, I have had parents come in to argue about the grades I have given in my AP English classes. To me, my grades are far too generous; to middle-class parents, they are often an affront to their sense of entitlement. If their kids do a modicum of work, many parents expect them to get at least a B. When I have given C’s or D’s to bright middle-class kids who have done poor or mediocre work, some parents have accused me of destroying their children’s futures.

While the excerpt above is the quote that got me to read the rest of the article, it was the “Colleges keep complaining” quote that made me want to blog it.

I regularly have to un-teach the survival mechanisms my students learned during their high school English classes. Because they come into my classroom expecting to rely on their proven ability to summarize the plot or relate the protagonist’s experiences to incidents in their own lives, I emphasize the idea that they should think of those skills as a useful base, but that they will need to move beyond those skills if they want to demonstrate the ability to think and communicate at the college level.

I know I’m assigning far less reading to my students than I did as an undergrad, and giving far more personal attention (in the way of paper consultations, revisions, and in-class affirmations) than I ever received from my professors. I feel guilty when I drop two novels from the syllabus and replace them with a short story anthology and a writing workshop, but I have to keep reminding myself, I am not teaching at the same kind of institution where I was educated. I went to a big, state, research institution (where the professors were expected to be brilliant lecturers who put most of their time into making an international name for themselves in their chosen subfield), and I am working at a small, private, teaching institution (where the professors are expected to put most of their time into their students, via a dynamic student-centered curriculum in a wide variety of subjects, including some outside our chosen specialty). The literature survey courses I took were packed with 300 students who were majoring or minoring in English; the courses I teach are capped at 18, and less than half of them will be majors.

What I face as a teacher is not bad, it’s just different.

As I continue to gain experience as a teacher, I continue to adjust my delivery and expectations to meet the reality. While I’d love to think of the small upper-level majors-only courses as the “norm,” most of the time I will be teaching a mixed population that includes non-majors who are being asked to look at the world in a strikingly different way than any of their other classes required, and majors who have sat through my “what is a peer-reviewed academic journal” speech four or five times already. Throw in a few students who are my age or older, and a significant number who are training to be the very English teachers whose training I am implicitly challenging, and no class meeting is ever routine.

This year, I have a new perspective, because I’m on the academic standards committee. If an applicant doesn’t meet the university’s standardized-test admissions requirements, I’m one of the people who looks carefully at class rank, academic transcript, letters of reference, and information we can gather from the personal essay, in order to determine whether this particular student is worth making an exception.

A few days before the committee meets, the members individually read through applicant files. Then, the seven or eight of us sit around a table, with a list of names in front of us. For each name, we each vote whether to accept the student, accept the student on the condition that they participate in a developmental program, defer their application to see how their senior year grades are holding up, or deny admission altogether.

We’re really not doing students much of a favor if we recruit them to campus in the fall, only to have them drop out the next semester. And to that end, part of our function as a committee is not simply gatekeeping, but rather to identify those students who will likely need additional academic support in order to succeed in college. I’m constantly reminded of the fact that if I vote to offer a student admission, I’m telling my colleagues that I think I would be able to teach that student in a freshman comp course.

I welcome the occasion to reflect on the role of college admissions. Colleges admit students on the basis of their academic records, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell whether the student who got a 2.7 average and ranks 25th out of 500 students is better prepared than the student who got a 3.5 average and ranks 250th out of 500 students – especially when both students earned the same SAT scores.

What kind of a school has a B- student in the top 10% of the graduating class? What kind of a school gives out an average score of A-? There’s such a huge range of factors that we can’t with confidence predict which student is more likely to succeed.

Whenever I find myself reminding students that “Plot summary was enough to get you through high school,” I remind the students (and myself) that their high school teachers have to deal with a situation that is very different. Teachers deal with more discipline problems, they can rarely choose their own textbooks, and they may have to deal with 150 or 200 students in a total of six or seven classes each day (on top of advising a club or coaching a sport). I don’t expect high school teachers to have the time to make college composition classes obsolete.

On a busy day, I deal with 45 students in three classes, and maybe 30 students in two classes on a typical day. Fridays, I have only one class of 12 students. Because I teach writing-intensive courses that are capped at 18, I have the time to read student drafts, and comment on them in detail. High school teachers simply can’t devote that much time to marking papers – not when they have so many other things to deal with. I’m not trying to paint a picture of leisure here. Since we’re also expected to serve on committees and publish original research, my days are pretty full. (With committee work, lately, rather than research, which I’ve started doing at night after the kids are in bed.)

So, while I was nodding my head in silent agreement when I started reading the article, I still ended up dissatisfied with the “blame the students” thesis. Welsh also blames middle-class entitlement, “busy parents guilt-ridden over the little time they spend with their kids,” guidance counselors who let students drop difficult classes, and the colleges who admit the resulting mediocre students.

Of the share of blame to be shouldered by high school teachers, he merely asks rhetorically, “Who among us would say we couldn’t do a little better?” Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the teachers who let unmotivated students pass from one grade to another are a bigger part of the puzzle than Welsh seems to want to admit.

Am I pointing the finger at teachers? Of course not. But I do feel Welsh is very generous to teachers when assessing their role in this complex puzzle.