Thursday, December 22, 2011

Something Is Broken in K-12 Education

Or maybe something is broken in our culture.  This December 12, 2011 Contra Costa Times article at the San Jose Mercury-News website reports on how the California State University system is overwhelmed by remedial student needs:
The remedial numbers are staggering, given that the Cal State system admits only freshmen who graduated in the top one-third of their high-school class. About 27,300 freshmen in the 2010 entering class of about 42,700 needed remedial work in math, English or both.
Wait a minute: more than half of the students who were in the top third of their high school class aren't ready for freshman English and math?
"It's a terrible indictment of the K-through-12 system," Postma said. "If a factory was building cars and the lug nuts kept falling off the tires, you would do something pretty dramatic about it. We keep adding the lug nuts back to the tires rather than trying to figure out what the problem is."
The remedial problem is hardly confined to California. Schools across the country have puzzled over how to better prepare students for college and what to do with those who are not ready. 
Minor point: lug nuts fall off the wheels, not the tires, but I can't expect a professor to know highly technical stuff like that!  Still, he's right: if more than half of the top third of high school graduates are unready for college, then something is terribly broken.

I have said it before: Idiocracy is beginning to look less like science fiction, and more like a documentary.


  1. I spent some time as a Grad TA (and later an adjunct).

    I didn't see these problems at the scale described, but I did see evidence of this trend.

    Even at the Tech-school, there were students who didn't have mastery of High-School Algebra.

    In the office-area shared by adjunct instructors, I would regularly hear complaints about students who could not write a paper for English class.

    Many adjuncts were of the opinion that these students should not have been in college.

    It is shocking to realize that even filtering for the top 33% of High School graduates doesn't filter out the need for remedial work.

    As a potential solution, I would propose a semester of employment in some kind of manual labor, followed by an opportunity to get a GED.

    Seriously, if a HS Diploma has less meaning than a GED, the students need to take the GED test before acceptance into University.

  2. Two years ago my daughter graduated from a California high school with a 3.95 grade point average and ranked 13/392 in her class. Her senior year she had five AP classes including AP Calculus in which she got A's both semesters.

    She applied to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona as a prospective Mechanical Engineering Student. We were told that both these school were very impacted so as backups She also applied to and was accepted at New Mexico Tech, Univ of Wyo, South Dakota State and South Dakota School of Mines.

    She was rejected Cal Poly SLO and accepted as one of 200 freshmen ME students out of 1000 applicants at Pomona (her 2nd choice).

    Once accepted she was required to take their math placement test, which she failed to pass the trig portion of the test and scored low enough on the algebra portion that they placed her into an algebra class as an incoming freshman.

    She was outraged and showed them her high school transcripts and calculus test scores, etc. They explained that she didn't fail the calculus part of the test, she failed the trig and algebra portions.

    So she spent her freshman year taking college algebra and trig in order to get into calculus her sophomore year. Putting her a year behind schedule.

    I mentioned her situation to several of the math teachers at her high school and was told that they were not surprised. They don't teach a trig class in high school anymore - they include "just enough trig" as part of the algebra class to get you into calculus.

    When I asked how do you explain a kid who apparently can't do the algebra and trig can get an "A" in calculus? They shrugged and said "Well, you can't expect high school calculus to be as tough as college calculus."

    I won't detail the rest of the conversation because it wasn't very polite and I'm not very welcome at the high school anymore.

    For the record my daughter is half way through her sophomore year in college, she is maintaining a 3.9+ grade point average, is in the honors program at Pomona. She has admitted that there was a lot in the algebra, trig and calculus classes that they made her take "over" that she did not know, or understand very well. But she does not support my condemnation of her high school teachers. She liked them and doesn't think it was all their fault. I maintain that it is the teachers, the curriculum and the system that is failing. She chooses to blame just the system and the curriculum.

  3. Many moons ago when I was in JC I could have used more and individualized tutorial and practice in composition, but no one ever suggested that I take dumbbell English. Karrde is right. Instead of merely SAT and transcripts and some cockamamie essay about how the student has performed some unique service for the community, the students need to take the GED to be admitted to university.

  4. David: Your story is very strange. For one thing, MIT's first term of the calculus tracks the AP Calculus curriculum, although it's most? of the longer BC version (the Wikipedia entry lists more topics than I remember doing in 1979, then again most everyone can take at least the AB version nowadays; my school system had dropped all its "honors" programs because they were "discriminatory").

    Here's the important questions: nevermind the A's she earned: what did she get in the ETS administered AP Calculus test? If not a 4 or 5 this story is not surprising.

    Also, did she take a SAT Subject Test in Mathematics? That should have signaled trouble, then again all too many of these tests have been watered down since my time (e.g. after 1993 the SAT became mostly useless). My goodness, they even allow the use of calculators!

    Well, all that said I'm glad she got into a college that diagnosed her gaps and that she responded well to the challenge.