College preparation isn't for everyone

October 05, 2006|By Paul Marx

Benjamin Feldman, an official of the Baltimore public school system, boasts about the good work schools are doing in preparing students for college. Mr. Feldman has written that city schools are "striving to inculcate" a culture in which all or most students aim at moving on to college. It's a policy that's sweeping the nation, and it is a great mistake.

Trying to prepare most students for college ignores the fact that not all students are college material. Among the basic skills necessary for success in college are the ability to read with good comprehension and to write presentably. But not all kids are interested in learning these skills. It is not unusual to hear high school students today say, "I don't like reading," or "I don't like writing." A not unreasonable test to determine whether a student is college material is simply to find out whether he or she has ever voluntarily read an entire book.

Why must everyone like to read or write? What is wrong with focusing on other constructive activities?

In the age of television, the Internet and cell phones, reading and writing are seen by many adults as superfluous. We might wish it were otherwise, but this is the reality. It's why newspaper reading has declined drastically. And it's why immersing all high school students in a college-going culture is unjustifiable.

I happen to enjoy reading. On the other hand, I can't fix anything. My brain may be nimble, but my hands are not. I have great admiration for people who have skills that I don't have. Unfortunately, because of outside pressures, more and more school districts are forcing students to undertake curricula for which they are not suited.

Would we try to make runners out of everyone? Would we insist that every 10-year-old must be a member of a Little League baseball team? Is it wrong to present ordinary students with opportunities to develop skills in areas that don't involve more than minimal reading and writing, such as graphics, music or computer repair?

A large part of this one-size-fits-all attitude is caused by the No Child Left Behind law, which assumes that all students have the same aspirations. Under NCLB, administrators and teachers have to show that their schools have made "adequate yearly progress" in subject areas that are important only to those who want to go to college for the right reasons.

Under these yearly progress plans, teachers and administrators are supposed to end each year closer to the ultimate goal of leaving not one child behind by the year 2014. By 2014, all students are supposed to be proficient in all their academic subjects.

The whole effort is a charade. To fulfill such a goal, teachers and administrators will have to resort to deceptions. Educators can do everything that theory says should be done to make progress, but in the end, there is the human being - the student who may be unable or uninterested when it comes to academics.

We continue to be bewitched by Thomas Jefferson's notion that all men are created equal. All Americans may be entitled to equal rights, but they certainly are not the same in abilities or interests.

Ninth-graders in Maryland are expected to "construct, examine and extend the meaning of traditional and contemporary works recognized as having significant literary value." My experience has been that a large proportion of high school students have no interest whatsoever in being able to do that. Yet, with the inculcation of the college-going culture, they are being forced to learn skills they could not care less about learning and for which they have no aptitude. They are being made to feel frustrated and ashamed. They are being made to want to leave high school behind as quickly as they can.

People are not all the same. Not everyone cares about or has an aptitude for reading, writing or math. But they may very well have an aptitude for working with machines or building materials, or dough, or sound. Baltimore, like many cities across the country, has a dropout rate of about 50 percent. Inculcating more of a college-going culture will increase that rate.

What will high school dropouts do with their lives? If they choose to go to work, they'll have a hard time making $10 an hour. Indeed, they might never earn a living wage. Illegal activities with a chance to make big bucks will be very attractive.

Schools should assess aptitudes and interests and then steer students accordingly. Not every student wants to go to college - and not every student should.

Paul Marx, who lives in Towson, is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven. His e-mail is

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