When we prioritize the least successful students over their more well-prepared peers, we invariably lower standards for all students. Educators focus on gaming the system to produce “high” grades and graduation rates and in the process, everyone loses sight of why learning matters in the first place. Schools only work when teachers believe in the value of their lessons and students feel responsible for their own learning. In the absence of those vital components, everyone is less likely to succeed.
A few years ago, the school district where I teach became enamored with a book called The One Thing by real estate mogul Gary Keller. Keller argued that, rather than spreading out effort over many different objectives, the secret to success was to identify and focus on the one thing that mattered most for achieving your goal. Taken with this insight, our superintendent asked every principal in the district to determine the “One Thing” that would be the unifying focus of their campus efforts. When teachers returned from summer break that year, we learned about this new initiative and the specific cause that our principal had selected for us to rally around.
Our high school wasn’t going to focus on helping students develop better problem-solving skills, increasing student engagement, or even on aligning our curriculums more closely to the demands of standardized tests. In fact, we weren’t going to focus on anything that would be relevant to the majority of our students. Our One Thing was to improve the educational outcomes of our “critical students”—the lowest achieving five percent who had not passed standardized tests and were most at risk of not graduating. In a school with over 2,000 students, we were told that improving the scores of our bottom 100 was what mattered most.
While a bit more blunt than is typical, this was only stating a hidden reality of which most educators were already aware. Public education, today, is far more concerned with raising the grades and test scores of its lowest achieving students than with pushing all students towards a higher standard. Of course, schools would love everyone to learn more and they are eager to highlight any academic achievement that they can use to create the illusion of educational excellence. But in a world of finite resources, the priorities are quite clear. Whenever a school has to choose, they will sacrifice the benefit of the many to focus on the least successful few.
Many would argue that this is how it should be—that schools should embrace the Rawlsian ethic and direct the majority of their attention to supporting the least advantaged, whose environments or talents make them less likely to become successful students. Such sentiments are particularly common in education, where I’ve often heard teachers make the case that: Good students don’t really need you. They will do well no matter what. The students who really need you are the ones who don’t care about school. As progressive as this sounds, it speaks to a culture that does not actually believe that the subjects they teach matter.
Considering the needs of each student, why should so much emphasis be placed on teaching algebra to a high school student who still can’t multiply single-digit numbers in his head. By high school, most “critical students” are years behind their peers. They often don’t know the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship, where China is relative to Australia, or that “I” is supposed to be capitalized. Barring an enormous and unlikely investment of energy, they will not enter a field that requires academic competency. This is not to say that motivated students should not have access to remediation. But the vast majority of critical students would benefit far more from getting work experience in a specific trade than from prolonging this painful educational charade. It seems foolish for a teacher to pay less attention to students who are likely to need higher-level academic skills in their future, so that he can pull uninterested students aside to quiz them on the parts of the cell.
By contrast, most other students need to be challenged to go beyond superficial task work. But, the higher-order skills that high schools should be focused on developing require a level of attention, rigor, and skilled feedback that remediation-focused teachers are not able to offer. Consequently, the majority of high school graduates today are not adequately prepared. A 2010 report revealed that of the 23 member universities in the California State University system, all of which demand a college-preparatory curriculum completed with at least a B average, “68 percent of the 50,000 entering freshmen at CSU campuses require remediation in English/language arts, math, or both.” And if these same standards were applied by the California Community Colleges, “their remediation rates would exceed 80 percent.”
The report (which comes from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board) goes on to argue that most other states would have similar findings. Indeed, according to former professor and United States Assistant Secretary of Education, Chester E. Finn Jr.:
For years now, the College Board, the American College Testing program, and, more recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress have supplied data indicating that the percentage of 12th graders (or 12th-grade test-takers) who are truly ready for college coursework is somewhere below 40.
None of this is likely to surprise Americans. According to 2018 Gallup polls, only three percent of Americans thought high school graduates were “very well prepared for college” and only five percent thought they were “very well prepared for work.” Most people sense that our education system is falling short, yet we struggle to identify many of the most obvious causes and their solutions. Most notably, by placing a disproportionate emphasis on the education of less capable students, schools downgrade the education of everyone else. Teachers lower their standards and their role shifts from academic and developmental experts to that of activity-organizers. Mainstream students skate by without ever cultivating a capacity for logical analysis, synthesis, written argument, or any of the competencies that will be most valuable after high school. Even Advanced Placement courses are often forced to lower their standards, as many parents realize that the mainstream track is inadequate and decide to push their kids into classes they aren’t prepared for.