College is much too late to help students catch up

September 26, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The news from the brain department is not so good. The great thinkers who are paid to educate children have been stumped again, and thus the kids will pay for the failures of the grown-ups.

It turns out, about half of all freshmen who went straight from high school to Maryland's public colleges and universities last year needed at least one remedial course because they couldn't do standard college-level work.

In other words, when the test papers are handed in, the verb has been placed next to the noun, but it does not agree with the noun. Instead of "The girl says," we have "the girl say." Or there's a problem with the nines table in multiplication learned by previous generations in elementary schools, or the high school science curriculum came up short for the kid who heads for college with dreams of becoming a great physicist.

The college instructor hands back the failing grade and says after class, "You're a little weak on the use of the subjunctive mood, and, while we're on the subject, you might look for help on some basic punctuation rules before attempting the likes of Chaucer." The kid says, "But I always got A's in English." The instructor says, "Well, yes ELLIPSIS..." A telephone call is placed to the parents. "I'm having some trouble," the kid says. "But we borrowed so much money to send you to school," the parents say.

We are now told, about one-fourth of the nearly 200,000 students at public campuses across Maryland are "underprepared" for college. The raw number is about 46,000 kids. This comes from a report issued Tuesday by the State Board of Education. It comes with much wringing of hands, which is the standard public posture of American educators over the past 30 years.

Also, it comes with a financial disclosure: It costs the state about $17.6 million to conduct all these remedial classes each year, to teach material that was supposed to have been learned somewhere in the previous 12 years of alleged education.

Where have so many things gone so terribly wrong in the schools? Round up the usual suspects: underfunded public schools, particularly in areas where the kids come from impoverished neighborhoods and home lives: teachers overmatched either because of their limited capabilities or their sense of exhaustion, kids whose families are looking the other way, kids mainlining on MTV or other drugs, administrators shuffling papers and counting the hours until retirement and hoping no one asks them to justify their existence, teachers who don't want to spend another year coddling the Neanderthal who's been disrupting class all year and thus hand out a gift C to move the kid up and let him become someone else's problem until, what do you know, he's now graduated from high school and, arriving belatedly at some semblance of maturity, wishes to continue his education.

And the last part is fine. The more people who go to college, the more their intellects are stirred, the more they tap into a potential they never knew they had, the more chance they have for a fulfilling life, and this is healthy for the whole community.

Except, as the board of education report notes, there is this consideration: "Despite its pervasive presence on campus, remedial education is considered by many to be an inappropriate activity for a post-secondary education."

In other words, this material should have been learned by now. The noun goes next to the correct verb in the earliest elementary school days, and the simplest multiplication tables are taught in the same formative years.

This is why the state spends vast millions to educate its children all through the years -- only to find, as it now turns out, that the process has to be repeated in college, at enormous cost, because the most basic material never was absorbed.

How, then, were the kids accepted into these institutions? Look at their grades: A's and B's, the results of rampant grade inflation year after year, and never mind that little trouble Jimmy had with long division. He can work it out later. Perhaps during college calculus. Those problems with punctuation and grammar? Maybe that professor of Shakespeare won't notice.

There have been attempts to stop this nonsense, since it cheats the students, harms the state and mocks the importance of learning. There are standardized tests, intended to measure students all along the way. In high school, the kids have to pass a couple of statewide exams to qualify for graduation.

The problem is: By this time in a kid's life, it's too late. How do you tell a kid who's gone through 12 years of classes, who's gotten passing grades, who says he's worked hard, and whose parents are hinting at lawsuits if he's held back, that the results of his final shot at the statewide English test still don't cut it, and he can't graduate until it improves?

Answer: You don't. If you haven't grabbed troubled kids early in the game, it's tough to do it in their senior year. And trying to catch up later, in college, by presenting material that should have been learned years earlier, is strictly a long shot for everyone.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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