Our Public Schools Are Failing to Prepare Our Kids for College

Considering all the money this state spends on public education, and how high our property taxes have grown to fund those expenses, it was a real eye opener to find out recently that nearly two thirds of students beginning course studies at Community College of RI need to take at least one remedial class. Left unsaid was the probable fact that many need to take more than one remedial to catch-up to where they should be. If public school students across the state are not prepared to handle beginning course work requirements at the community college level, it really begs the question, what are we getting for our money?

Also of concern is the news that the state Department of Education is considering instituting three different levels of diplomas for high school seniors come 2012, based on proficiency levels achieved or not achieved. This new diploma triad would be based on students’ ability to score proficiently on those standardized tests ushered in under the No Child Left Behind Act almost a decade ago. (The exam for our area is NECAP, which stands for New England Common Assessments Program). The problem is that students are being severely challenged by English and math requirements under the standardized tests. If they can’t score at a proficient level in both subjects they would henceforth be granted not a diploma but a certificate. Many students, particularly those from urban high schools, would be getting certificates instead of diplomas should the new system be approved for use. Which begs another good question, what are they supposed to do with a certificate?

Unfortunately, on a larger scale, Rhode Island is not that much different than a host of other states when it comes to the problems bedeviling American public education today. Failing public schools and inadequately prepared students are everywhere. We spend a lot of money, frankly, for insufficient return on our investment. We spend more money on teacher salaries and benefits than we do on students’ needs. Because we’ve centered so much effort around these standardized tests, teachers teach the tests and rote memorization takes over. The tests don’t measure a student’s creativity or problem solving or social skills. I am sure that many students are just not motivated or awakened to the challenge of learning when faced with the grind of studying for a make-break test. Teachers probably get weighed down by the testing mandate as well.

This has major implications because student academic achievement is one of the most important indicators of the health and relevance of our educational system, and a measure of our national competitiveness. High school graduation is no longer an end in itself but just a preparation for a college education. We want everyone to go to college because we hold a college education to be part of the American Dream, even as the costs of college grow far beyond the means of most families’ ability to pay. In the face of such financial burdens, students are forced to take on crushing debt at the very start of their working life. In Europe very few students go to university. Most go to vocational schools for training designed to prepare them for specific career paths. In fact, the European public education system assigns students to educational levels based on testing conducted very early in their school lives. Enterprising and late-bloomer children can move up an educational notch based on performance, but most stay and graduate within the level they were initially assigned. And very few European students enter their careers with $20,000 or more of school debt to drag along with them.

Most Americans would find that type of system to be repugnant and informed by a socialist mind-set. But perhaps our emphasis on a college career for everyone is misguided. Vocational training may be a better pathway to develop the new workers our economy is going to need. Standardized testing is a bureaucratic attempt to make as many round pegs as possible fit square holes. Maybe we should redesign the game board and give students a more realistic education with an aim to land a good job. After that, the career they forge will be their responsibility.