Thursday, January 26, 2006

Not-so-literate College Students

This is a "reforming education" post, not so much a gifted post, but I thought it was still an interesting topic.

The American Institutes for Research released a study last week on the skills of soon-to-be college graduates. They weren't too encouraging. I'm always suspicious of tests sprung on adults (those Jay Leno man-on-the-street interviews come to mind. Hey, sometimes we're busy with work and don't have time to follow current events!). But this study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, asked simple skill questions. Can students who are about to finish their degree programs understand a table about exercise and blood pressure, compare offers from credit card companies with different rates, and understand the arguments in a newspaper editorial? According to articles about the results, more than 50% of students at four-year colleges and 75% of students at two-year colleges could not perform these tasks.

Again, another study showing Americans are dumb. So what?

The reason we should care about this one is that the skills tested closely track skills that have long been bandied about as the point of free, compulsory public education. These students experienced such education for the full 13 years before they went on to institutions of higher learning. For the bulk of students, education should:

1. Give the student the skills necessary to hold employment to provide for his/her family and take care of his/her family and
2. Teach the student the skills necessary to participate in civic life.

If you can't understand interest rates, you'll have a hard time climbing beyond paycheck to paycheck living. If you can't read charts, the bulk of data-oriented jobs are off-limits to you. If you can't understand a table linking increased exercise with lower blood pressure, you'll have a hard time figuring out what works to safeguard your family's health. And if you can't understand arguments in an editorial, how will you understand the different arguments political candidates make, or lawyers make in trial when you serve on jury duty?

The question always raised in homeschooling cases is whether families can guarantee that they will teach their children the same skills that public education provides. If I were trying to launch a case, I'd clip this article. It seems the bar is pretty low.


Jason smith said...

Unfortunately if the lack of student literacy is primarily due to the quality of teaching this article does not bode well for gifted programs.If so, it can be inferred from the article that most US schools do not have the resources to provide even the lowest level of education. Other than wealthy districts there are probably no teachers to spare for programs designed for the top few % of students, and even if there were their qualifications may be inadequate.

Jason Smith

Anonymous said...

It also reflects the anti-intellectual bent in America today. There are those who celebrate ignorance as being true, honest and real. Look at our government, which glaringly show this bias.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Sure, there's an anti-intellectual bent in America, but what's most surprising about this study is that it's not asking particularly egg-headed intellectual type questions. These are all functional skills. You don't need an affection for the big questions of life to read a chart or compare credit card rates.

Sadie Baker said...

I'm disappointed. I only recently started reading this blog after my son was admitted into the Davidson Institute. I thought it was interesting and informative.

Then I run across "free and compulsory education?" Is that really how you feel about public education?

As a liberal, I view public education as the bedrock of democracy. Look at it this way, if you lived in a monarchy, you would want your king to have a first-rate education, right? I mean, it's in your best interest to have an educated person making the decisions that affect your life.

In a democracy, the people are the decision makers (at least in theory) and it is likewise in the best interest of all of us that the people receive the best possible education.

So why this universal scorn for public education? We need to be in there, with our sleeves rolled up, doing everything we can to make ipublic education better, not just for our own children but for everyone's children, because we are all in this together whether we realize that or not.

Anonymous said...

Sadie, I'm with you.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sadie and Anonymous #5

I'm with you too but I did not interpret the post as being anti public education. I believe Laura's point (she can correct me if I am wrong) is that the system based on this (and other) studies is clearly failing even the better students (only around 30% of HS students go to college of which only around 15% finish).

However the option proferred (home schooling) is not viable for most parents and neither are private schools like Davidson.

Jason Smith

Jason Smith said...

What I would like to see is a study explaining WHY the public schools are failing.

Sadie B. said...

What I want to see is more support for the public schools, especially from those of us who have options.

I am afraid that we are headed down a road that leads to system of prep schools for the rich, jail schools for the incorrigible, and religious schools for everyone else.

The public school system is broken, there is no denying that. But we simply can't abandon the one institution in America where everyone is (again, theoretically) recognized as a free citizen and an equal, no matter who they are or where they come from. We walk away from those ideals at our own peril.

Jason Smith said...

Sadie B

Amen, but the gifted education community (educators, advocates, parents, academics, etc) is the last place you will find significant support for your views.

Here is the fundamental logic around here:

1) Childhood IQ tests are the sole determinant of potential and are socioeconomically unbiased

2)The distribution of educational resources should be weighted according to the potential of each student (IQ) as opposed to evenly.

3) The majority of gifted children are from upper income families

4) Ergo the majority of educational resources (per student) should go to the rich!

This argument was statest clearest in the Bell Curve (and with graphs)but you can find it implicitly here (check out Laura's post about "not being worried' about hispanic minorities having a disproportionately low number of high academically performing children) and not too far under the surface in just about everywhere else in the gifted community you look.

Ironically the justifications they cite the most for this view often undercut their position. For example the identical twin studies used to claim IQ is inherited - and intervention makes no difference (Bell Curve argument. What the studies actually show is that although identical twin's IQs are similar as adults, as children - where these educational resource decisions are made - their IQ's strongly reflect their family environment. So if I go by the genetic determinism argument both the twin growing up in the mansion and the one in the barrio should receive the same educational resources. However by the logic I cited above, because the identical twin raised in the mansion will have a higher childhood IQ score she will receive the educational resources to fulfill her potential. For the twin in the barrio, school will largely be to keep her from delinquency until she is 18.

You will find any attempt to point out this logical absurdity is met (if met with a response at all) with claims that "well that is maybe 1 in
10000 poor kids who are missed".

So as far as I can tell we are back to the circular reasoning used by the first social Darwinists during the Victorian era - If you are poor you are stupid, because you have to be stupid to be poor. The only difference is that now there are allegedly 'objective' tests (and college admission criteria!) to prove it.


Laura Vanderkam said...

I'm scratching my head trying to find in the original post anything near what some of these responses are claiming. I certainly don't read anything about "yay, rah, public schools are failing." I'd love for all kids to get a great education. Unfortunately, this system we have set up is emphatically not doing that.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Jason-- continuing from your last post. Didn't I just do a whole post about the problems of using one test? (point 1 on your list). As for point 2, it sounds like you think educational resources should be weighted equally, not based on IQ. That's an interesting idea, but do you know what is spent per child in special education compared to a regular classroom? No one is approaching spending *more* on children with the highest IQs, which you claim we are advocating here. Most of the solutions you'll find advocated here or on DITD are quite cheap. Grade-skipping, for instance, costs schools nothing, and yet many don't do it.

Jason Smith said...

Hi Laura

Sorry to rant (I should get my own blog for that LOL) and overgeneralize. Actually as you point out the DITD provides many low cost suggestions and free web resources for gifted children and their parents. Although I believe my characterization of the iq-centrism of the majority of the gifted community is accurate, as well as the self serving selective reading of the literature, the realities of the direct impact of the gifted education community regarding educational resources are:

1) its influence on American education policy has been minimal except in a few wealthy districts (and even there gifted programs have not consumed significant educational resources).


2) even if every one of the recommendations re. gifted education were implemented they would not significantly impact the problem of poorly prepared students.

However the philosophy behind the movement (ability is innate and environment and education are not important - if u consider between 36 and 64% unimportant) -as exemplified by The Bell Curve and other books - has had a HUGE impact in justifying reducing state and federal education support.

While I strongly disagree with this philosophy and its impact on public policies I do not believe cuts in education funding is the major reason for the poor performance of public schools (see Laura, you cannot completely write me off as a total liberal lunatic gunning for an education commentator position on national pinko radio).

There are many examples of school systems that have succeeded with teacher and supply funding levels far below even the lower 25% of schools today (e.g. the NYC public school system in the 1920's through 40's that produced numerous Nobel prize winners and successful professionals even before the magnet schools like Bronx HS of Science took significant numbers of top students).

Unfortunately while I have seen many articles about the failures of schools, I have yet to see one that clearly explained why these earlier models succeeded (the great triumph of the American public education system) relative to what we have today.


Laura Vanderkam said...

Well, the NYC schools of 1920-1940 might be getting back to the gifted immigrant kid posts. That, and the decade or two before that, was a time of heavy Jewish immigration into the city (for obvious reasons given the situation in Europe). While most of these families weren't rich in either their home countries or the US, they did share a culture that valued education a lot, and that shows up in school systems. There are other possibilities too -- teaching may have been a more prestigious profession at the time, certainly for women, or for brainy kids growing up who didn't see, say, running a hedge fund as an option like they do now.
I'm glad to hear you don't see a direct correlation between spending and results! Indeed, places like Washington DC are probably matched only by New Trier, Illinois (and maybe not even there, I'd have to double check) in terms of per pupil spending.
There's a post on a charter school in LA on the immigrant kid thread that sounds like a model that does work in less well-off areas. But again, the kids whose families choose to send them to such places are probably more interested in education to start with. It's hard to figure out how to reach a kid whose family couldn't care less. This is a perpetual stumbling block, and one to think about.

Jason Smith said...

Hi Laura

Teaching was definitely a more prestigious profession then - many of my parents teachers (both in the NYC system during that era) were PhDs, and in fields other than education (science, literature). I have heard the same from several others who went through the system.

I am not sure if the relatively large jewish population in NYC at the time was as large a factor in the success of the system as has been proposed. Very few schools if any had mainly jewish students (the most successful by any measure other than the magnet schools - Midwood- was predominantly Italian and Irish). Furthemore many non jewish 1rst and 2nd generation immigrant students, even though a lower percentage went into academics, were clearly successfully educated by the system.

One thing the schools did have was a very strict disciplinary system and high standards for student achievement (my Dad was doing chemistry experiments in 7th grade beyond what most HS seniors do now). There was very little or no concept of the HS being primarily a social enculturation experience - the students instead saw it as a means to an end.

In addition they had grade promotion - my parents were both advanced several grades. It would be an excellent group to study to assess the long term impact of this policy because of the large number of students who experienced it.

Regarding school spending I am not sure Wash DC is a good example to generalize about relative spending (although a very good example about the failure of spending alone as a remedy). In my home state (CT) the spending per pupil is about 1/2-2/3 in the inner city schools of that in the wealthiest suburbs - and the spending the students actually see (e.g. teachers) even a smaller fraction.

However there are exceptions in even the poorest districts. Yale University runs a very successful program in one of the elementary schools in New Haven - the basis of the program referred to on another post about an LA program - for decades. The program puts a strong emphasis on parental involvement.

Quiltsrwarm said...

Oh, my gosh... I got such a bumble bee in my bonnet on this discussion on public schools and how they've failed the gifted kids in our nation that I just created my first blog ever. Yippee me!

As for why I decided to respond to these posts regarding "Not-so-literate College Students" here instead of my new blog, I needed to say, "well, duh!". My Father, when he was a corporate top-level manager complained years ago about how the new hires from supposed good schools couldn't function in the real world. They had to practically be re-trained to be useful to the company (this was late '80s, early 90's). Fast forward to my situation...

You only need to read one book, just one, to find out why we (along with thousands of other concerned parents every year) yanked our highly gifted children from our public schools in order to teach them at home. The book is written by a public school teacher, and it does have a slight religious bent (I'm not a faith-based homeschooler, either) but the logic behind the history of the American educational experience was eye-opening:

Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense by David Guterson

"Parental Involvement", or the lack therof anyway, is the catch-phrase among frustrated educators. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parental involvement; as home educators, we couldn't possibly get any more involved!

No one should ever have to go through what my 11 year old had to suffer through for five years, and my 9 year old for three years -- NO ONE!! Education "specialists" have managed to warp our sense of what a "good" education means. In our case, that meant the experience of daily after-school crying jags, daily and nightly "please, mom, don't send me to school, it's BORING!!". It broke my heart to send my children to school every day KNOWING they weren't learning anything new or interesting, knowing they were suffering academic torture. It's insane what gifted kids have to go through in the public schools -- and we do this in the name of democracy?!?!

For someone to blindly follow the "democratic model" of public schools without first realizing why the public school model was created (actually a recent invention by educational theorists and corporate interests)is, well, just that -- blind. There is nothing democratic about not having a say in the education of our children. I don't care how many volunteer hours you put in for your local public school (or private for that matter), I don't care what school board you sit on, you can not change that which has been mandated by state and federal government. You can't change the status quo -- at least not in the time-frame of your own children's education.

I will stop there... if you are interested in any more, please see my blog. It is very new, but because gifted issues pervade my existence through homeschooling three highly gifted kids, I have a lot of opinion and personal stories to tell... Thanks for reading; Sorry for the rant, but that bummble bee just wouldn't leave 'till I had my say.

Sadie B. said...

I'm not arguing anyone should blindly follow anything, I'm just concerned that the policy of every-child-for-himself-and devil-take-the-hindmost is not going to bring our nation to a good end.

You know what I would like to see? There are a lot of homeschoolers in this community, and I would like to know, how many of you ever served on a school board, or even thought about it?

You are the people with the intelligence, passion and drive (face it, a lot of you were gifted children yourselves), you are the people with the greatest potential to make a difference. It wouldn't be easy, or fun, or even pleasant maybe sometimes, but it would be important and it would impact the lives of all our children, not just our genetic kin.

If even three homeschoolers out of ten would serve on their local school boards, we could turn this ship around, I know it.

Quiltsrwarm said...

I've heard of a homeschooling dad who served on a school board in a neighboring county, and was quite popular. It is possible to do it, but most homeschoolers don't have the time or the inclination to deal with school boards and their strict adherance to following a superintendent's lead rather than setting policy.

I for one tried to deal with our school board on an issue not related to homeschooling (the school district website -- I was the admin for it), but the people who were elected refused to cooperate with me when information for the website was needed. For example, board meeting minutes -- the person who was board secretary at the time used short-hand to take the minutes then would use a typewriter to type them. I'm not kidding! Then she refused to consider the possibility that putting the minutes in a computer and then online would be of benefit to the community. This was our District treasurer, someone not unused to computers, either. Talk about stonewalling!

Most school boards I've heard about like to talk the talk, but won't walk the walk. They feel tied by a combination of tradition and state and federal law. It is extremely difficult to change this mindset, especially when elections only occur every two years. That's two years too long to affect change in time to benefit my children -- and that is my only concern, and rightly so: that my kids get the education they deserve, not one served up on a state/federal-mandated platter.

Homeschoolers do participate in the school board election process by making sure we know where candidates stand on the issues of homeschooling and, for me, gifted education. Our homeschooling group tends to prefer to maintain a cordial relationship with our school board in the event that a homeschooling issue comes up that needs addressed. That is the best we can do until laws are changed to allow for curriculum flexibility. This would then give parents, teachers, and administrators more leeway in determining a good curriculum plan for each and every child.

Stacy said...

I would like to clarify that The Davidson Academy of Nevada, located on the campus of UNR in Reno, Nevada( is a public school. This school for profoundly gifted students performing at the middle school level and above will open this fall and be free of charge. The Davidson Institute, a non profit organization that assists profoundly gifted students, their families, and educators also provides free services. You can find our more about their services at