No More Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Tracking Chips On the Rise for Junior High and High School Students

I have a child in junior high and a child in high school. Every day, both of them must wear their school-issued identification card on a lanyard around their necks at all times. The doors to their schools are locked at 8:30 a.m.  After being checked out on a video camera and buzzed in, parents and other visitors must present a driver’s license upon entering the building, and then that visitor is issued a sticker with a scanned image of their license picture and their name in bold letters.  The sticker must be worn at all times while on school grounds.

My children do not attend school in the Gaza Strip. They are in a small Texas suburb where, honestly, the biggest threat to their well-being are West Nile mosquitoes, all of which, sadly, are too tiny for State-issued sticky-IDs.

Still, it is not enough. Now in addition to their dog-collars…err.. I mean “IDs,”… soon, they, like thousands of other Texas’ kids, will be required to have their IDs “chipped,” as in microchipped with GPS tracking devices that will let administrators and, presumably, teachers, know where they are at all times.

Not surprisingly, there has been backlash. One student, Andrea Hernandez of San Antonio, Texas, just won the right to refuse to wear the embedded identification.  While Hernandez’s reasons for balking at the requirement may be unusual (she believes the tracking is “Satanic”), many parents and students also contend that the practice is invasive and in violation of their rights. It all feels a little too creepily “Big Brother-ish” to lots of dissenters.

For their part, schools are embracing the GPS IDs because increased attendance means increased funding. Additionally, they claim that students’ “rights being violated” is inapplicable since the students are under age. Moreover, there are voices on all sides, parents, teachers, administrators, and students, who argue that there should be nothing to worry about and no objections…if your student (or you) are where they (or you) are supposed to be.

What do you think? Yes to chips or no? And why?


Why College Students Today Can’t Write

Today’s post is brought to you by  Braintrack.com, an online resource for university, college, and career searches. You can check out their blog here!

College professors have been bemoaning the lack of solid writing skills in their students for decades (see this article from 1974 for proof), but statistics gathered over the past few years suggest that student writing skills are in an even more dismal state than they were in 1974. Today, 28% of college graduates produce writing that rates as deficient, even with tuition reaching record rates and many colleges being more selective than ever. These poor writing skills have had serious ramifications not only in higher education but in the business world, as our information-driven society makes it ever more critical for students to develop the ability to communicate through the written word.

While it’s easy to point out the problem, it’s much harder to figure out a solution. A promising first step can be to pinpoint just what is causing students to arrive and leave college without the skills they’ll need to get by in the real world. That’s easier said than done. The decline of writing abilities in students is a multifaceted issue, impacted by teachers, students, and administrators alike and encompassing all elements of writing education from support to motivation. While not comprehensive, this list addresses some of the biggest reasons so many students struggle with writing in colleges today, from freshman year to graduation.

One of the biggest reasons college students can’t write may simply be due to the fact that most college courses and degree programs don’t demand it of them. In the book Academically Adrift most freshmen reported “little academic demand in terms of writing” and half of college seniors reported never having written a paper longer than 20 pages during their last year of college. Students who aren’t being required to submit papers that are academically challenging have little opportunity to learn and grow as writers, which can hold them back academically. In fact, the same study showed that students who took classes with high expectations (those with 40 pages of reading a week and 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more from their courses than their peers in less demanding courses.
Many students enter college with sub-par writing skills because of inadequate writing instruction in their high school courses. A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2007 found that just 24% of high school seniors could score proficient or better on a writing exam. Things haven’t changed much for the better since then, and many fear that high schools are failing students when it comes to teaching writing. Why is this happening? At some schools, teachers simply don’t have enough time to leave adequate feedback on lengthy student papers when they have 120 or more students in their courses. Another problem that many experts have pointed to is that high schools simply don’t focus on writing instruction. Schools are often so caught up in boosting scores in skills that are tested in state exams like math, science, and reading, that writing simply falls by the wayside. There are schools trying to make improvements, with some making writing a central part of their curricula, but there’s still a long way to go before America’s high school students will graduate with improved writing abilities across the board.
Whether it’s fair to students or not, many college professors don’t want to dedicate class time to teaching students remedial writing skills they should really already know by the time they reach college. Giving increased attention to writing means that not only do professors have less class time to focus on the true subject of the course, they also have to dedicate hours of time outside of class to rigorously correcting student papers in order to make progress in improving student writing. This kind of grading is time-consuming and frustrating, and with many writing-intensive courses no longer being simply English classes, it’s often a distraction from learning other material.

It isn’t just professors and employers who’ve taken note of the dwindling writing skills of college students. Students themselves are also well aware that they need a little more help in their writing. In a national study of 30,000 undergraduates, fewer than 50% felt that their writing had improved over the four years they were in school. A similar study reported that just 27.6% of students saw improvement in their writing by graduation. The reason students cited for the lack of progress? Inadequate feedback and support. Eighty percent of students in the study said they felt they would have become better writers if they had received more feedback and direct interaction from professors.
At the majority of American colleges, writing requirements are fulfilled by passing a couple of courses deemed as “writing intensive.” Yet that doesn’t always ensure that students will graduate knowing how to write or be any good at it. Some schools, like Old Dominion University, used to require that students pass a writing test before graduation, but tests like these are being phased out or dropped. Why? Too many students failed them. While they may have represented an outdated model for assessing student abilities, the fact that a significant portion of students couldn’t pass them is troubling to say the least. At most colleges, a C or better in a handful of writing courses is a ticket to graduation, but with grade inflation rampant it’s unclear what degree of writing ability that truly represents. With little motivation to push themselves to learn to improve writing, many students graduate without ever mastering grammar, syntax, or analytical writing.
Grade inflation is a very real phenomenon (today, 43% of all grades are A’s, an increase of 28% since 1960) and one that is slowly starting to take a serious toll on what students actually get out of their educational experiences. Students don’t just hope to earn a good grade, many actually expect it, whether their work warrants it or not. Sadly, a growing number of professors are happy to oblige, as student feedback on faculty ratings can be key to helping them keep jobs, get tenure, and get ahead. This has had a serious impact on the level of writing that many college students produce, as those who don’t feel compelled to do more than the minimum to pass courses are getting by with less than ever before. Harsh, strict grading and evaluation of papers used to be common practice. The lack of this same kind of rigor may just be a contributing factor to why students can’t write as well today.
From the Ivy League to community colleges, read a classroom’s worth of essays and you’re bound to come across a student using “text speak” or overly casual vernacular in their academic writing. While these kinds of abbreviations and words might work in everyday conversation, they’re generally unacceptable in college level writing. The problem is that many students don’t understand that what works in speech or in a casual discussion doesn’t quite cut it in a college essay. Even worse, many are allowed to get by with these language blunders in their courses, both in high school and beyond. It doesn’t bode well for academic standards or for students who want to earn respect in the workplace.
Many colleges have done away with the basic freshman comp courses in lieu of courses in the social sciences that are writing-intensive. While writing intensive courses in the social sciences aren’t a bad idea in and of themselves (and many social science professors are great writers), they aren’t really a substitute for writing-focused courses that are designed to give incoming students rigorous foundation in writing. R.V. Young, a professor at North Carolina State, recalls that in 1970, students at the school were required to take a composition course spanning two semesters. During the course, students had to write 25 papers all of which were graded harshly by professors. These kinds of courses have largely disappeared in colleges nationwide and have been replaced with other hybrid courses, with few containing the same rigorous, focused attention on writing.
Before students can become great writers, they have to learn (at least) two basic things: the rules of good writing and how to think critically and creatively. Yet many education experts have pointed out that schools fail to adequately teach students either of those things in secondary school and beyond. Students are more often taught what to think, not how to think, and as a result often don’t understand how to expand on ideas, apply rules in a broader sense, or even begin to understand what constitutes great writing. Of course, there’s a line to walk between the structure and creativity that sometimes just doesn’t get through to students. One example? Students learn to format writing in forms that are rarely seen in the real world (how often do you see the five-paragraph essay?), causing them to have to unlearn what they’ve learned just to progress to the level of their college peers.
Why does it matter if today’s college grads aren’t great writers? It should matter to college students themselves, as those who enter the working world without writing skills, even those who aren’t working in a writing-centric profession, may find it harder to get a job or to perform the duties their employers require. More seriously, however, poor writing can have a negative effect on the economy. The National Committee on Writing estimates that poor writing costs businesses as much as $3.1 billion annually. If students are pouring tens of thousands into a college education, shouldn’t more than half graduate believing they’ve improved their writing skills? Shouldn’t employers be able to trust that students have basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics if they hold a college degree? While ideally, the answer to both of those questions should be yes, the reality is that neither is a guarantee in today’s world.

Does “AP” stand for “Absolutely Pointless”?

My 12-year-old son began his first semester in junior high this year. In July, all of us parents were rounded up for a three-hour information seminar. We visited each of the “Pre-AP” teachers’ rooms,  a total of seven different potential course offerings. In every session, the message was the same: you enrolled your kid in ALL Pre-AP classes if your child isn’t a complete dummy. Pre-AP, it was (sometimes not) patiently explained, was necessary for your child so that he or she could take AP courses in high school, and then be eligible to skip introductory courses in college. The point, apparently, was to save us a little money and to (it was implied) feel a bit superior about our offspring.

The same teachers who teach Pre-AP classes also teach regular courses. Although our “information seminar” was supposed to tell us the difference between the two types of classes, virtually none  of the teachers even mentioned the regular classes. The Pre-AP was pushed so hard it made a parent feel like admitting your kid was as on par intellectually with the Honey Boo Boo clan for simply asking about the differences.

As the evening droned on and on, I began to wonder: Whatever happened to teaching students at the actual level they are at, intellectually, emotionally, and socially? I wondered too, as a college professor myself, if AP is pushed so heavily, why is it that I find my freshmen so unprepared for the rigors of a college course? This week, the Atlantic published an article by John Tierney, a retired professor and high school AP teacher. Like me, Tierney wondered the same thing.

So why this huge push into AP?  Probably the biggest reason is that the College Board, which sets the standards and publishes the AP curriculum, earns over half of its earnings from AP courses. Which might be all right with everyone if high schools truly were turning out enhanced and advanced learners. However, in Tierney’s experience, and my own, they are not doing any such thing.

Tierney investigated the many reasons for the failures of the AP programs, and some confusion about their promises. For example, while AP courses in high school may let a college freshman “opt out” of an introductory course, they often do not receive actual “college credit” for AP classes as expected. And when they do get to skip an intro class, many students find that their AP classes in high school do not remotely resemble the challenges of a true college class, and many wish they HAD taken the regular introductory college course.

Another valid argument is Tierney’s opposition to “open enrollment” for  AP classes.  This was the case in my son’s new school. There was no merit base.  No one was asked to join because of high scores in elementary school or a teacher’s recommendation. What we were basically told is that Pre-AP was “sink or swim.” Tierney argues that, “two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.”

And what of the kids who fail to swim? It’s pretty grim, according to Tierney. He says that those classes get ever more full as the years wear on and some kids just can’t hack it, but they are not given the strongest teachers. Those teachers, of course, are reserved for the AP program. A lot of these non-swimmers are minorities, who will now face even more obstacles to higher education.

Finally, and reinforcing what I have already seen in my own home, the push to cover so much material so fast leads to “rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry.” No wonder when I took my Freshmen out on a sunny day and we all did nothing but read Thoreau out loud to one another, they all looked stunned… then they slowly began to relax, smile, and enjoy the pleasures of learning. Sadly, high school teachers are not able to take their students down interesting paths of learning. After all… there’s a test coming up.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 813 other followers