To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Study: Most College Students Lack Skills

A "study" showed that [m]ore than 50 percent of students at four-year schools and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks.

That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.

The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.

I took a fairly challenging class in microbiology at the local state U last year. There appeared on the message board a note to the teacher that I had to save a copy of.


my name is [blank] and I have been attending your classes. I had the second day that you had took role and financial aid said I only have nine hours and for them to fix it you have to send them a letter about me, that have been attending your class and putting me there for 2/2/05, since I have been going to your class. By you not taking role each day i come to class ,you don't of the days I have been coming to class.

The fact that this person graduated from high school, let alone gained admission to the university, indicates something very wrong with the system. I realize that some people think that correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation are only called for on papers that are being graded by an English teacher. But I think the problems evidenced in this note go beyond mere carelessness, and they are by no means unique among college students.

Her financial aid is most likely my tax dollars. Don't get me wrong - I am very willing to be taxed for the privilege of living in a city of educated people. But the fact that it is my taxes paying for her education gives me the right to critique what's happening here. Somebody dropped the ball with Miss X, probably a long time ago, and her attendence at college isn't doing her or anybody else any good. She could possibly benefit from some remedial classes but that micro class was not one. What happens is that the school accepts her, gets the financial aid, and lets her flunk out. What do they care? They get the money, so for her to fail at something she should never have attempted means nothing to them. This was also the case with other students in my class who didn't have literacy problems, but also didn't have the chemistry and biology background to understand the lectures. I know this because some of us formed a study group. There used to be prerequisites for the class, but for some reason they were dropped. Our median grades were in the 50's for all the tests. And the tests weren't unreasonable; all of my grades were in the 90's.

I think a big problem is the lottery-financed Hope scholarships. I doubt that Miss X qualified for one. But I do think that there is way too much emphasis put on getting kids into the colleges and universities, and not nearly enough put on making sure they have what it takes to be successful there. It's like money is the only obstacle between those kids and that degree. If that ever really becomes the case, then the B.S. or B.A. will be the new high school diploma.

I keep reading and hearing that Memphis has trouble attracting and keeping high- or even medium-tech industries because of the poor quality of the local labor pool. While I am skeptical of local stories bashing Memphis, because I suspect that you could hear similar stories at other cities, I have to say that job interviews I've been in on, and hirees I've worked with, tend to bear this out. Our new school superintendent is trying very hard to fix the schools, and I sure hope she has a lot of success, very soon.


Jason said...

some thoughts to consider:
i think two things failed miss X. the first was the education system that produced her. but we have to think about a few things--maybe she barely passed; she had help from tutors/teachers; at some point a version of her work/literacy seemed acceptable, but without that support she is illiterate. Or maybe she just slipped through the cracks--there shouldn't be any, but few really want to take on the complex problems in education (because the solutions can't be reduced to sound bites).
while we agree that miss x's earlier ed has failed her, we also need to consider how miss x failed herself. sometimes people forget that education isn't a passive process--students who want to learn, learn. maybe miss x was just lazy and took advantage of a system that's flawed, or maybe miss x's parents never instilled a work ethic or didn't ensure that their daughter was literate.

most colleges do care about students who don't come prepared--a student who only stays for a semester hurts the school's retention/graduation rate. if the college in your example doesn't care, i'm guessing they will be made to care soon enough. and they should care.

we have to be careful when we talk about educational failures. there are many failures: administration, schools, teachers, students, and parents. i'm willing to bet that most educational problems combine factors from all those sources.

i say this because lots of people bring up the "my tax dollars" point, and it's a valid concern. however, few really want to change education, and many (i'm not accusing you of this) only mention that out of greed: they don't want to give up a single penny they earn, and they don't care what programs get cut and they don't care about those hurt by the cuts. also, some people are only concerned about how schools waste their tax dollars, when they ought to look at other government activities for egregious waste of tax dollars.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

As I've posted earlier, Jason, I do support the public schools and I think we have to make them as strong as possible. That's going to involve spending some money. I want that money spent effectively and responsibly. I'm tired of the feel-good, look-good crap that doesn't do anything.

Because I'm a conservative, I am extra careful when I talk about personal responsibility because when a conservative talks that way some people view that as being cold-hearted and blaming the victim. But in the case of Miss X, I don't think she bears much responsibility for her situation.

First of all, she might be one of the many, many children of unwed teenagers in this city. If her mother was 14 when she was born, and semi-literate herself, there was not going to be any literacy or work ethic training at home. I don't know what the solution is to this. I wish I did. It's the strongest argument I know for really trying to do something with the schools.

Secondly, Miss X had no way of knowing that her education was substandard unless her teachers told her. Kids are at the mercy of the schools they go to. They don't have any way to gauge whether their education is adequate. My daughter went to a very tough high school, but her college roommate didn't. I asked her roommate if she'd learned anything last semester (their freshman year) and she said, "I had to learn how to study. In high school they tell you how smart you are. I got here and I thought, 'Were they lying to me?'" At least she was smart enough to figure that out and make up for it herself. But then, she comes from a reasonably affluent two-parent home.