Berra High school in Greenville, S.C., which has 1,000 pupils, announced proudly that that while four years ago only 65 percent of their seniors graduated, this year the figure jumped to 80 percent. But there is a problem. “Graduating”—getting the diploma— did not mean they had been well educated. According to The New York Times (12/ 27/15), in the college entrance exams, only one in 10 could read at a college level and only one in 14 could do college entrance level math.
This is not just South Carolina’s problem. A recent national evaluation found fewer than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for college level reading and math. More and more high schools are asking less of students and students are giving less as well. One analysis for the class of 2014 found that 32 states did not require all graduates to take four years of English and math. To cover up—“compensate” doesn’t do it—some schools let failing students make up credits with online courses or tutoring sections without repeating the semester. Not only have the students failed, but their principals and teachers have failed to hold them responsible.
The Times (1/3) devoted its full letter section to six reactions from readers. One reader stated bluntly that there is one single explanation for the high graduation rates: “Parents and politicians demanded that they increase. Instead of improving education, states lowered standards.” Another reported, “Even students are surprised that they are allowed to graduate when they know they don’t deserve to.” One stressed another problem. ACT and SAT scores reflect family income. Berra High School has a high percentage of immigrants and its students had an estimated family income of $15,475. The real problem, says the writer, “is not low education standards. It is poverty and lack of economic opportunity.”
Education columnist Jay Mathews (Washington Post, 12/7/15) reports that college “gut courses” are getting out of hand. A National Survey of Student Engagement finds only 61 percent of seniors are “highly challenged” by their courses. One Ivy League college gives college credit for “Ghosts, Demons and Monsters.” One economist told Mr. Mathews that “it is convenient all around for students, faculty, taxpayers, legislators, alums and donors to pretend that high quality and relevant learning is going on,” but the “emperor,” if not naked, has a “skimpy wardrobe.”
Meanwhile, just as the consensus on the softness of the educational system is taking hold, The Atlantic (Jan/Feb) tells us “How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids,” The New York Times (1/3) asks “Is School Making Our Children Ill?” and the Wall Street Journal (1/5) asks, “Do American Students Study Too Hard?” The Atlantic complains that preschool is battering 4 year olds with charts, graphs, word walls, work sheets and classroom rules. “Kindergarten has become a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat,” and by second grade, pre-school and kindergarten have so over-taught them that young students do worse than before.
The Times op-ed essay concerns Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, who discovered anxiety and depression among his medical students, then followed up with research on high schools and a “microcosm of a nation-side epidemic of school-related stress.” The proposed solution is to limit homework to no more than 20 minutes per class per night and none on weekends. The Journal’s story concerns a film “Race to Nowhere,” which suggests that the problems in American education are due to standardized tests, overambitious parents, insufficient funding and George W. Bush, whose No Child Left Behind law forced annual, poorly prepared standardized tests. The film charges that demanding students to complete up to six hours of homework a night drives them into mental illness.
After 40 years of university and three of high school teaching, I don’t doubt that today’s students are under considerable pressure: too many standardized tests, over-commitment to athletics (practice in the early morning before breakfast and again most of the afternoon), high-pressure social life where weekend partying begins on Thursday, family backgrounds where the parents are split or unemployed or don’t read or have home libraries, parents who will accept nothing less than an A+ but know little or nothing about their son or daughter’s friends or will take the student out of class for an extra vacation.
At Jesuit high schools, including when I went to St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia in 1948-51 and today, teachers regularly demand three hours of study every night and assume that at least Saturday or Sunday is an opportunity to read goods books and write papers. Universities call for 30 hours a week, though at less demanding schools students get by on as little as 10. Today 8 to 18 year olds watch four and a half hours of TV a day. Other electronic devices like computers, iPods and cell phones can raise the total daily media exposure to 10 hours. High levels of TV consumption may be accompanied by depression, lower grades, lower scores on tests, low parental involvement and behavior problems. The problem is not that the average teacher assigns too much homework; it may be that he or she has not sat down with the students and parents and explained that if these precious years are wasted the student will go through life intellectually unarmed.
Our nation has gone down this path before. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education produced a critique, “A Nation at Risk,” which told us that the average graduate that year was worse than the average graduate a generation ago. As Holy Cross College dean at the time, I wrote about it in the Los Angeles Times (5/24/1983).