Disadvantaged Students

Will Fitzhugh

The California State College System reported recently that 47% of their freshmen must take remedial reading courses before they can be admitted to regular college academic courses. The Diploma to Nowhere report of the Strong American Schools Project said that more than one million of our high school graduates are in remedial courses at our colleges each year.

Keep in mind that these are not high school dropouts. These are students who did what we asked them to do, were awarded their high school diplomas at graduation, applied to college, were accepted at college, and then told when they got there that they were not well prepared enough by their high schools to take college courses.

The Chronicle of Higher Education did a survey of college professors, who reported that 90% of their freshmen were not very well prepared in reading, doing research or writing.

From my perspective, these students, regardless of their gender, race, creed, or national origin, have been disadvantaged during their twelve years in our public schools. My research indicates that the vast majority have never been asked to do a single serious research paper in high school, and, while I have been unable to find money to do a study of this, I have anecdotal evidence that the vast majority of our public high school students are never asked to read one complete nonfiction book by their teachers during their four years.

Race can be a disadvantage of course, even for the children of Vietnamese boat people, and poverty can be a disadvantage in education as well, even for the children of unemployed white families in Appalachia. But the disadvantage of disgracefully low expectations for academic reading and writing are disinterestedly applied to all of our public high school students, it appears.

Huge numbers of unprepared public high school students provide an achievement gap all by themselves, albeit one that is largely ignored by those who think that funding is the main reason so many of our students fail to complete any college degree.

In that study by The Chronicle of Higher Education, they also asked English teachers if they thought their students were prepared for college reading and writing tasks, and most of them thought their students were well prepared. The problem may be that English departments typically assign fiction as reading for students and the writing they ask for is almost universally personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, supplemented now by work on the little 500-word personal “college essay.”

It is hard to conceive of a literacy program better designed to render our public high school students poorly prepared for the nonfiction books and term papers at the college level. Of course, many colleges, eager to fill their dorms and please their “customers” with easy courses and grade inflation, are gradually reducing the number of books students are assigned and the length of papers they are asked to write, but this simply adds to the disadvantages to which we are subjecting our students, all the while charging them large amounts of money for tuition.

Many parents are satisfied when their children tell them that they love their high school, perhaps not fully realizing that the students are talking mostly about their social life and their after-school sports and other activities. They may remain unaware that our students are being prevented from learning to read history books and from writing serious term papers. No one mentions that disadvantage, so no doubt these parents are just as surprised, humiliated, and embarrassed as their children when they are not allowed into regular college courses when they get there.

Americans have big hearts, and are concerned when they are told of the plight of our disadvantaged students who are black, Hispanic, or poor. But they are naturally not really able to summon up much concern over an academic literacy achievement gap which disadvantages practically all of our public high school students, especially if the schools and the Edupundits keep them quite uninformed about it.

This article is cross posted from The Concord Review.

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