High school education gets a failing grade

Ontario has been trying to fix its public education system. I thought we were making progress … but maybe not.

According to today’s Globe and Mail, students who graduate from high school may still lack the fundamental skills they need to succeed in university:

Although professors have long lamented the English and math skills of their students, they are increasingly complaining that too many students — some with top marks — arrive on campus unprepared for the rigours of academia. These students struggle to string together a sentence, let alone form a paragraph.

“I have seen students present high school English grades in the 90s, who have not passed our simple English test. And I don’t know why,” said Ann Barrett, managing director of the University of Waterloo’s English language proficiency program.

Several Canadian universities are discussed in the article:  the University of Ottawa, the University of Waterloo, George Brown College (all in Ontario), and Simon Fraser University (in British Columbia). All are grappling with the same problem.
At the University of Waterloo, officials immediately target certain students after administering an entrance exam in writing proficiency. Almost all students write a five-paragraph essay in their first week of school and are graded on grammar, punctuation and structure.

Ms. Barrett said that about 25 per cent of the students fail each year. Those students are required to get extra help.

“I’ll tell you one thing that drives me crazy:  So many students don’t know the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than.’ How is this possible?” Ms. Barrett asked. “I’ve read it hundreds of times. Isn’t that taught?”

Please note, these are not students with dyslexia or some kind of learning disability — not when Ms. Barrett is describing 25% of her university’s student body.

Professors in American universities face a similar challenge:

In a U.S. report released this month, 40 per cent of professors who were surveyed said that most of the students they teach lack the basic skills for university-level work. Further, the survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 56 per cent cited working with unprepared students as a source of stress.
Here’s my personal anecdote. In the 1990s, I returned to university as a “mature” student (i.e., I was in my mid-thirties). I had the advantage of a previous degree (in Theology) and a decade of real life experience behind me.

One of the first-year courses was explicitly designed to help students make the transition to university life. The first assignment we were given was a very simple one. We were given an article to read. The assignment was to summarize it.

I got 10 out of 10. It doesn’t strike me as much of an achievement because the assignment was dead easy. But the professor was very impressed by my work — so impressed that he took me aside after class to demand an explanation!

Most of the students missed the point of the assignment. They went straight into “critical thinking” mode, explaining why the author was dead wrong, and asserting an alternative point of view.

I thought this was pretty bad. Imagine graduating from high school, and you can’t simply read an essay and accurately summarize the author’s argument. It’s a core skill. You can’t critique somebody else’s position until you first understand it from that person’s vantage point.

But maybe I was too tough on my fellow students. If they had any writing skills whatsoever — if, for example, they knew the difference between “then” and “than” — they were the cream of the academic crop.

*Sigh*. I hope the education system in the UK is a good one, or the Western world will be surpassed by Asia before we realize what’s happening.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mrs.Aginoth
    Sep 23, 2005 @ 11:41:00

    Sadly the UK universities are complaining of exactly the same thing. Students with wonderful grades do not understand the basics of the English Language (sentance structure, punctuation, grammer etc)

    There is also the problem that although the UK government is committed to increasing the % of young people going to universities, there are proportionally more students taking subjects such as media studies & philosophy, and hardly any taking maths, sciences or medicine.

    I’m not sure of the reson for the fall in standards: it has long be a contentious subject in the Aginoth household. I guess computers & coursework have something to do with it, plus the emphasis on “understanding” not “learning”. Oh yes, and we have had the same exams for decades, teachers freely admit that they teach children to pass the exam, not the subject.

    Reply

  2. Q
    Sep 23, 2005 @ 20:57:00

    Mrs. Aginoth:
    I should point out that I’ve added your blog to my “Cast of characters”. The criteria for it is quite straightforward: it’s a list of all the bloggers who regularly comment on my posts.

    Re the problems with education in the UK — I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I’m not.

    In my opinion, the problem is that students in the West are unwilling to learn unless you make education entertaining.

    Life just isn’t like that. If you want to learn a language, you have to master the conjugations by rote memorization. If you want to learn history, again, a certain amount of memorization is simply inescapable. If you want to succeed in math, you’re going to have to do the same kind of grunt work to establish a foundation before you can move on to the “sexy” stuff.

    I know education can be made interesting — I always thought the Magic School Bus cartoon was great. But children have to meet the teachers half way and do the boring stuff when it’s necessary.

    My prejudice is born of personal experience. I was a lousy student prior to the last go around. I had to learn the hard way that education matters, and you get out of an education what you invest in it.
    Q

    Reply

  3. Mrs.Aginoth
    Sep 24, 2005 @ 10:14:00

    Ooh I’m flattered. My blog is more of a journal than a discussion board, so I get my arguamentative kick on others 🙂

    However, I disagree with you. Education does not need to be fun for the students: That’s an adult perspective. Learning is fun de facto to a child (honestly). In fact I believe that most people like to learn new things all their life (although they may not be so keen to take exams).

    I belive the major problem with education in the western world is so many students do not really see the relevance or necessity for school lessons. That is what we need to change. Also, teachers need to be motivated & excited by their subjects, which is rare in many schools.

    Reply

  4. Mary P.
    Sep 24, 2005 @ 17:32:00

    When my till then homeschooled daughter started school in grade five (age 10), she was bewildered by the attitude towards learning evidenced by her peers.

    “They act like learning is some kind of bad medicine,” she commented. This despite the superb teacher they had that year. Whence the disinterest? Here, it’s “uncool” to enjoy learning after about age 6. Dismaying, but true. Why, I simply don’t know. Kids are embarrassed to admit to being excited about learning.

    You can demonstrate the relevance of a particular subject till the cows come home, but a student who doesn’t want to hear it, won’t. And it’ll be the teacher’s fault for not making it interesting enough.

    I see kids getting educational opportunities that I’d be thrilled to receive (French immersion, for one), and resisting it every inch of the way. Drives me mad.

    None of the above, however, explains why the system has been lowering their standards for the last forty years. An interesting exercise, which I once saw in an educational magazine, but too long ago to remember where, is to check out the reading lists for children at each grade level from the 60’s, and compare it to today’s. In some instances, the difference is stark.

    None of these comments very helpful, I’m afraid – just my observations and opinions.

    Reply

  5. The Misanthrope
    Sep 25, 2005 @ 10:59:00

    I thought it was just the U.S. that didn’t understand learning and its value. I blame the corporate world for making everyone so materialistic that people only learn what is necessary to make money. Reading is a basic skill, but not many read. They just want to know what the cost will be and forget all the supporting data.

    Reply

  6. Jack's Shack
    Sep 25, 2005 @ 11:28:00

    I suspect that the Net and its counterparts are part of the problem. Email and text messaging routinely use abbreviations and poor grammar and it seems to be spilling over.

    Reply

  7. Q
    Sep 25, 2005 @ 12:32:00

    Re the photo — Q here, in my “cool Canadian” guise.

    My thoughts run in a similar direction to yours, Jack. Western culture is not verbal in the way it once was. We parents fight a constant battle to limit our children’s “screen time”, which is time they would once have spent reading — and writing, by hand.

    But there’s probably truth in all of the explanations mentioned. The fact is, our culture has shifted in very many ways, and one of the indirect consequences is a decay in our fluency with language.

    I am amazed by the scholars of earlier generations. The depth and breadth of their learning was astonishing, and their output was prodigious when you consider there were no computers to make editing easy. And then they would run a farm or something on the side.

    They must have had more than 24 hours in their days back then. Or they just frittered away a lot less time than we do. I honestly don’t know how it was possible — it seems superhuman from my perspective.
    Q

    Reply

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