“Yet learning increases inborn worth, and righteous ways make strong the heart.” — Horace
An increasing number of independent schools these days, both private and charter, are deliberately taking a classical approach to education. By “classical,” we mean a form of schooling that could be called “back-to-basics” at one end and a truly liberal education at the other, but in the school reform movement these days simply goes by the designation “classical.” Some might call it “conservative,” but we prefer the term “traditional.” That is, we adhere to a centuries-old view of learning and time-tested teaching methods. Such a choice might at first seem paradoxical or even out-of-touch with reality. Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the age of the internet and iPhone, in a country that has long been addicted to the revolutionary and the novel, when almost everyone in the world of K-12 education is singing the chorus of “critical thinking skills for a twenty-first-century global economy,” should reform-minded schools root themselves so deeply in the past? Is newer not always better? What could today’s young people learn from old books? We must answer these questions clearly from the outset.
The modern classical school will remain classical by upholding the same standards of teaching, of curriculum, and of discipline found in the schools of old.
Classical education has a history of over 2500 years in the West. It began in ancient Greece, was adopted wholesale by the Romans, faltered after the fall of Rome, made a slow but steady recovery during the Middle Ages, and was again brought to perfection in the Italian Renaissance. The classical inheritance then passed to England, and from the mother country to America through colonial settlement. At the time of this nation’s founding classical education was still thriving. Jefferson heartily recommended Greek and Latin as the languages of study for early adolescence. One of the Founding Fathers’ favorite books was Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Eighteenth-century Americans venerated and trusted George Washington in large part because he reminded them of the Roman patriot Cincinnatus.
So important has classical education been in the history of the West that it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the march of civilization has paralleled the vibrancy of classical schools.
Unlike the schools of earlier centuries, today’s classical schools do not make the ancient languages virtually the whole of the curriculum (though to be truly classical they must require several years of Latin study). Still, the modern classical school will remain classical by upholding the same standards of teaching, of curriculum, and of discipline found in the schools of old. Indeed, in these schools English will be taught using methods derived from centuries of teaching and learning the classical languages. This form of schooling takes stock in the tried and true rather than in the latest fads frothing forth from the schools of education.
Apart from this impressive history, an increasing number of schools and parents are embracing classical education as the surest road to school reform for at least four reasons. These reasons constitute a clear break from modern, progressive education and a return to traditional aims and methods. Classical education:
Knowledge and Core Knowledge
By embracing the idea of cultural and civic literacy, classical education invites us to break out of the cycle of ignorance and incompetence that modern culture and modern educational practices perpetuate.
The classical view of education holds that human beings are thinking creatures. Unlike other living beings, humans live by their intelligence. We want to know things. Specifically, we want to know the things around us and how they operate. We want to know who we are, where we come from, and how we might thrive. Beyond facts, we want to know what is true and good. Our desire to know begins in childhood. Children observe everything around them. They pick up language at an astonishing rate. As soon as they begin to speak, they ask the question “What is it?” of everything that catches their attention. Children demonstrate what is true of us all: we are all by nature learners. Any plan of education, therefore, should take advantage of young people’s natural curiosity.
Schemes that stall children in their mastering material of real substance because “they are not ready for it” or it is deemed not “age appropriate,” or that use various gimmicks that sugar-coat learning as though children regard their books as they do their medicine, are not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive and insulting to the human mind.
The young mind constitutes a veritable arsenal of mental capacities: memory, reason, imagination, a sense of beauty, a facility for language. Yet a classical school does not just leave children to stew in their own intellectual juices. Rather, it directs and exercises and strengthens children’s mental capacities in the same way that sports exercise their physical strength and agility. The mind, like the body, atrophies when not well-trained. The emphasis on rigorous intellectual training is an essential difference between classical schooling on the one hand and modern, “student-centered” learning on the other. While children may be naturally disposed to learning, everything they need to know does not go to them unaided from nature or spring naturally into their minds. Students need explicit instruction to understand the world around them, whether in language, the operations of physical nature, or the achievements of human beings. As children grow, their questions become increasingly complex and their ability to understand concepts more advanced. Yet such maturity of mind only warrants further instruction. No orchestra can perform without a conductor. By stressing childhood “creativity” and “spontaneity,” while at the same time denigrating “mere rote learning” (and thus human memory itself) and without making children do much work or work on anything important, the modern school takes bright young children and puts them on the path to becoming bored adults who do not know very much. It is the old story of the tortoise and the hare. Falling in love with our talents — without making any real effort to improve them — causes one to lose the race. In this case, it is the all-important race towards becoming informed, moral, thinking citizens.
Cultural and civic literacy is essential to the flourishing of our nation.
So classical education puts young minds to work. It leads young people to know and understand themselves and the world around them. Students do not learn in the abstract. They are unable to engage in so-called “critical thinking” (which used to be called plain ol’ thinking) without something in particular to think about. Young people must acquire specific knowledge in specific disciplines to participate fully and effectively in human conversation. One way to explain this axiom is E. D. Hirsch’s idea of “cultural literacy.” For people to communicate effectively, according to Hirsch, they must not only use the same language to express and understand complex ideas, they must possess a reservoir of common facts, ideas, and references known to all in a given social and political order. Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the best example of a leader who relied on cultural literacy to convey his ideas. Like other Americans on the frontier, he had little formal schooling. Yet he read intensively the works of Shakespeare, the King James’ Bible, the fables of Æsop, Euclid’s geometry, and the documents of the American Founding. Few men in our history have been able to express so forcefully and with such economy the principles of freedom and human dignity:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg instantly knew that he referred to the “proposition” of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln did not have to retell the history of the war or that great document and the principles it proclaimed. His fellow Americans already knew that story. Therefore, the Gettysburg Address is not only one of the greatest speeches in our history; it is the shortest.
Conversely, a modern Lincoln (if one existed) could not count on such knowledge in his audience. Having been a teacher and professor for the past twenty years, and also having dipped into the realm of politics, I can avow that most citizens and most elected officials are alarmingly ignorant of the basic facts of American history and constitutional government. Young people today do not know either the Declaration or the Constitution and (when guessing as to their content) often confuse the two. Thus, we have largely lost the language of liberty. In Hirsch’s terms, “many young people today strikingly lack the information that writers of American books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted among their readers from all generations.” This decline in knowledge affects the realms of political economy, culture, ethics, and all other facets of American life. Nor is the business world immune. Employers are constantly amazed at what their employees do not know and therefore cannot do. Make no mistake. Cultural and civic literacy is not merely ornamental trivia or a “gifted and talented” program for a handful of students or an elective major in college. Our purpose is not to make Jeopardy champions or pad a résumé. Rather, cultural and civic literacy is essential to the flourishing of our nation. A culturally illiterate America cannot live up to the demands placed upon us by history and the present condition of the world. A culturally illiterate individual cannot comprehend and navigate the vast areas of human knowledge essential to his political, financial, and moral well-being. Jefferson knew that. So did Lincoln.
By embracing the idea of cultural and civic literacy, classical education invites us to break out of the cycle of ignorance and incompetence that modern culture and modern educational practices perpetuate. The students of classical schools study the traditional liberal arts that the curious, uncorrupted mind longs to know — language and literature, history and government, mathematics and the sciences, music and art — in a coherent, logical progression. The classical curriculum advances from the rudiments of literacy, arithmetic, and storytelling to the higher orders of thought and expression. All students ought to be immersed in this classical curriculum. Admittedly, different children have different talents. Some students catch on more quickly than others. We should always seek to challenge every student all the time. Yet we must regard any system of tracking that relegates certain students to an inferior curriculum as nefarious. Students do not all learn at the same speed, but all should be invited to run the course.
Upholding standards is a principle of exclusion as much as of inclusion.
In addition to requiring students to know important things, a classical education also teaches young people judgment according to strict standards. To be “classical” means to uphold a standard of excellence. The classical works of Greece and Rome are not great simply because they are old. They are great because they employ harmonious language to depict remarkable human events, to reveal the heights and depths of human nature, and to explain the transcendent ideals of human existence. Each of the liberal arts has its own standard of correctness, logic, beauty, weightiness, and truth. The study of a language offers perhaps the best example, especially since human beings live by communicating. Everyone can speak, and most people can read and write at least on a “functional” level. A classical education requires more than functional literacy, however. It teaches students from an early age high standards of grammar, precision in word choice, and an eloquence that can emanate only from a love of the language. Throughout his education, the student will be exposed to the highest examples of eloquence attained by the greatest writers and speakers of the language.
“. . . I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” — Shakespeare
“There is a tide in the affairs of men . . .” — Shakespeare
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” — Shakespeare
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” — Paine
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” — Churchill
These sentences are entirely grammatical. They could just as easily be used to teach grammar as “Bob is a big boy.” By preferring Shakespeare to an anonymous “See Bob” sentence (usually not well written) we teach three things rather than just one. We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty. Our purpose is to introduce young people to the masters of the language so they themselves learn to employ force and beauty in their deployment of the spoken and written word.
Young people today are particularly in need of high standards of thought and beauty. Their speech ranges from the sloppy to the vulgar. The person whose only expressions of approval and disapproval are “that’s cool” and “that sucks” — who cannot make it through a sentence without recourse to the word “like” a dozen times — lacks not only a copious vocabulary but also the capacity to judge events according to their nature and gravity. Music is another area in which students are in dire need of higher standards. The logical thinking that comes from mathematics and the sciences is no less important. Teachers in a classical school do not fail to impart to students the standards of taste and reason that lift them out of the formless dross of the culture. Upholding standards is a principle of exclusion as much as of inclusion. A classical school does not pretend that all writing is equally good, that all human endeavors are equally important or beneficial to human life, or that all scientific theories are equally plausible. In choosing the elements of a classical curriculum — works of literature and art, events in history, and so on — our motto is that of Winston Churchill: “I shall be satisfied with the very best.”
Classical schools unashamedly teach young people the time-tested virtues of human civilization.
Education is a moral enterprise. Young people must make good moral decisions daily. The older they get, the more important the decisions are. “Should I tell Mom that I broke her favorite vase or pretend like nothing happened?” “Should I copy the answers of the person sitting next to me?” “Should I smoke the substance and drink the beer my friend just gave me?” “Should my boyfriend and I have sex since we love each other?” These are the timeless moral questions youth face today and have always faced. Anyone who thinks they are new should read the Confessions of St. Augustine. This patriarch of the church stole pears as a child and as a youth had an illegitimate child. His knowledge of sin came from his own inner struggle. Schools can approach the moral lives of children and youth in four ways:
The first approach simply invites failure. All schools must maintain an atmosphere of order and decorum for learning to take place. Schools that are laissez-faire in shaping the character of their students end up with major discipline problems and permit unseemly, untoward behavior without claiming to do so. The second approach might seem the most sensible for reasonable people. “Let us talk about morality in a non-judgmental way and let students come up with their own answers,” say the advocates of moral reasoning and values clarification. They even make moral discussion a part of the curriculum. What happens in these discussions is that teachers open up pre-marital sex, drug use, and other illicit activities as plausible “life choices” so long as students can explain those choices in terms of “their own values.” Predictably, research has proven that young people who are exposed to open-ended discussions of moral issues are far more likely to engage in vice. Usually in combination with “values clarification,” schools can also either advocate or talk too much about (“make students aware of”) types of behavior that are both physically and emotionally destructive. Lacking all sense, many school districts and even states ask questions about drug use in a way that signals it is perfectly normal to be a pot-smoking, coke-snorting, crack-head wastrel.
In contrast to these three morally bankrupt approaches, classical schools unashamedly teach young people the time-tested virtues of human civilization.
We embrace Aristotle’s dictum that one becomes virtuous by practicing the virtues. We believe that every young person has a conscience. It may be a conscience embattled against the individual’s own passions and the allurements of the culture, but it is a conscience nonetheless. Like the capacities of the mind, the conscience must be educated or it will lapse into lethargy. We insist that students, from the earliest age, always be attentive and polite. We require them to practice courtesy in their dealings with both adults and each other. We teach them to exercise self-government. Throughout their studies, they become intimately acquainted with the great stories of courage and self-sacrifice found in literature and history. These narratives reveal how actions have consequences and the clear differences between right and wrong. Just as we encourage students to emulate the intellectual virtues of writers and scientists, so we invite and inspire them to emulate the moral virtues of heroes and heroines. When students become capable of discussing virtue in more abstract terms, we do not present them with moral conundrums seemingly without right or wrong answers. Instead, we explain to them how striving for right and good leads to happiness in both the individual and for an entire people. As such, the history of classical education is in large part a history of the conjunction of learning and virtue. The Roman teacher Quintilian made the connection explicit:
My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such a one is that he should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech, but all the excellences of character as well.
Any classical school worth its salt expects no less of its students.
Civics and Citizenship
True classical schools exalt the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as guaranteed by and realized through the American frame of government.
Classical education has always been concerned with the political order. Aristotle defined man as “by nature an animal intended to live in a polis.” Accordingly, for the Greeks education was essentially political. All free citizens bore the responsibility and the privilege of voting in the assembly and defending the polis from invasion. Young boys were taught from an early age how to speak and how to fight. The American Founders similarly hoped that schools would teach young people how to preserve the constitutional republic they would inherit. The Founders knew that free government depends not on the decisions of a few politicians but on the wisdom and virtue of a people. Political wisdom and virtue do not come easily. More than two centuries of American history have confirmed that this nation can be sustained only by citizens who understand, serve, and defend America’s founding principles. As much as the Founders hoped for a free people living under the rule of law, they feared the unchecked passions of an uninstructed multitude. In this light, we must regard the decline in civic knowledge in our day as portending untold danger to the safety and happiness of our people.
True classical schools provide a political education reaffirming our nation’s founding principles. They exalt the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as guaranteed by and realized through the American frame of government. They ensure that their students enter the world as citizens fully aware of both their rights and duties. They teach students that true freedom and happiness are to be obtained through limited, balanced, federal, and accountable government that protects the rights and liberties of a vibrant, enterprising people. Such political knowledge can only be gained by a thorough study of American history and government. That study must consist largely in reading primary sources: the words of the Founders themselves. If such explicit civic instruction appears to some as too patriotic, we must remember that James Madison, the father of our Constitution, considered a “reverence for the laws” a “prejudice” which even the most enlightened nations cannot afford to be without.
The End in View
Contrary to popular opinion, classical education is far from arcane, irrelevant, dull, and unimaginative. Rather, the classical view understands that a human being without knowledge of the world, without an understanding of civilization, and without a judgment formed by the standards of true greatness, is much like a man with amnesia. He does not know who he is or where he comes from. He does not know his rights or his duties. He knows neither his debts nor his debtors. Worse, he may easily become the pawn of the first huckster he runs into, so unfamiliar and strange will his surroundings seem to him.
A true classical, liberal, civic education recognizes with Lincoln that if we know where we are, by
knowing where we have been, we shall then know “whither we are tending.”
While parents worry that today’s educational practices shortchange young people and fail to provide them with the cultural, moral, and civic literacy necessary to live productive and happy lives, they should see great opportunity in the resurgence of classical schools. Indeed, the growing demand for traditional education on the part of students and parents alike promises to be the surest means of reacquainting our age with the fundamentals all educated people used to know: the elegance and order of language, life-ennobling stories, the all-but-forgotten fine arts, the logic of numerical relations, the order of the physical world, and the great story of mankind’s quest for justice and freedom. Another way of saying this is that an increasing number of Americans today, even the young, demonstrate a longing for learning things that are good and beautiful and true.
This longing is the first step on the long road of reconstituting our schools — and of pursuing true happiness.
Dr. Moore is the principal of the Atlanta Classical Academy and senior advisor to the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. From 2008–2014 he was a professor of history at Hillsdale College and lead advisor to the Barney Charter School Initiative, which helps set up classical charter schools around the country. At Hillsdale, Dr. Moore received the Emily Daugherty Award for Teaching Excellence. He earned a BA in history from the University of Chicago in 1990 and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Edinburgh in 1999. He also served as a lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1990–1993.
Every year I ask my college class how many students have seen a high school teacher cry, and most students raise their hands. When I ask what provoked the crying, most stories are about teachers who threaten to give students bad grades and students who do not care. When I ask my colleagues the same question about their high school teachers from one or two generations ago, virtually none can recall such tears. This is not a systematic survey, but it suggests a big change.
Today, nearly all high school seniors believe that they are going to college—and that bad grades won't stop them. They are right: With the dramatic increase in open admissions colleges, it is true that they can go.
But as I report in my recent book Beyond College for All, students who perform poorly in high school probably won't graduate from college—many won't even make it beyond remedial courses. High enrollment rates and low graduation rates are well-known facts of life in most open admissions and less selective colleges (both two- and four-year). The tight connection between high school preparation (in terms of both the rigor of courses taken and grades received) and college completion are well known to statisticians, researchers, and policymakers who follow such matters.
But research suggests that students still do not understand this connection. Consider the following: Seventy-one percent of the class of 1982 planned to get a college degree. Ten years later, 63.9 percent of those with A averages had attained an A.A. degree or higher, but only 13.9 percent of those with C averages (or lower) had done so (Rosenbaum, 1998, 2001). (In a more recent cohort [the class of 1992], students with C averages or lower fared a little better; 20.9 percent attained an A.A. degree or higher within eight years of graduating from high school [Rosenbaum and Gordon-McKeon, 2003]). As of 1992, 84 percent of high school seniors planned to get a college degree (NELS, 1992); but data from the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 tell us that only 45 to 49 percent of students who enter college and earn more than 10 credits actually earn a bachelor's degree—many even fail to earn 10 credits (Adelman, 2004). For students with high school averages of C or lower, the chances that they will earn even one college credit are less than 50-50 (Rosenbaum, 2001). Do your students know that? Do your colleagues? Did you know that?
Despite the availability of open admissions institutions and increased student aspirations for college degrees—factors that increase college enrollment—the easiest-to-use predictor of a student's likelihood of graduating from a two- or four-year college is still his or her high school grade point average.* Although any single grade is imperfect, when averaged over a high school career, the grade point average is an excellent predictor of how a student will do in college. This has always been true and there is no reason to expect it to change. Unfortunately, our well-intentioned efforts to encourage all students to go to college regardless of their grades inadvertently gives them the impression that high school grades don't matter.
In this article, we will look at the facts, indeed the tragedy, behind the façade of widespread college entry—and at what we can do to change the picture, either by increasing the odds that college enrollment will lead to college graduation or by helping students find more productive, successful post-high school paths.
New Dreams, New Misconceptions
The past 40 years brought three radical social transformations that together have dramatically increased the percentage of students who want to attend college. First, the earnings advantage of college graduates has grown (Grubb, 1996). Second, college—especially community college (a minor factor in the prior generation)—has become much more accessible. In the past four decades, while enrollments at four-year colleges doubled, enrollments increased five-fold at community colleges (NCES, 1999). Third, and perhaps most remarkably, virtually all community colleges adopted a revolutionary policy of open admissions. Unlike many four-year colleges, virtually all two-year colleges opened their doors to admit all interested high school graduates, regardless of students' prior academic achievement. Even high school graduates with barely passing grades are routinely welcomed because almost all two-year colleges offer a wide array of remedial courses. Indeed, in many cases, students do not even have to be high school graduates because most two-year colleges offer these students access to some non-credit courses, including GED courses.
These three transformations have dramatically altered the rules of college attendance and given students remarkable new opportunities. However, as with all revolutions, there are also unintended consequences. The revolutions spawned a set of myths—we'll call them misconceptions—that combined to send a message to students: Don't worry about high school grades or effort; you can still go to college and do fine. This message has not been sent to high achievers aiming for prestigious colleges, where grades and scores matter—and the students headed there know it. But it is the message that students who know little about college have received—particularly those whose parents did not go to college. These students (and their parents) are being misled with disastrous consequences. Their motivation to work hard in high school is sapped; their time to prepare for college is wasted; their college savings are eaten up by remedial courses that they could have taken for free in high school; and their chances of earning a college degree are greatly diminished. Further, the effect on many colleges has been to alter their mission and lower their standards.
This article reviews some of the misconceptions spawned by these three revolutions and rebuts them—and considers how schools can mitigate the terrible impact these misconceptions are having on individual students and, inevitably, on the overall school environment.
Misconception 1: College success is not linked to high school preparation.
A national survey (NELS, 1992) found that 84 percent of high school seniors in the class of 1992 planned to get a two- or four-year college degree. Even students with bad grades, low test scores, and poor high-school attendance planned to complete a college degree. Attaining a college degree can be difficult even for students who have worked hard and done well in high school; for those who haven't, it is nearly impossible. Look at the table below on grades and college completion for the class of 1982. On average, 37.7 percent of seniors with college plans earned a two-year or higher degree. But low high school grades cut students' chances markedly—only 13.9 percent of seniors with averages of C or lower completed college. For this 13.9 percent, open admissions at community colleges provided an extremely helpful second chance. However, for the vast majority of students, the other 86 percent, their second chance was only another experience of failure. Shouldn't we tell the students: If you want to graduate from college, exert the effort and get good grades in high school?
In the class of 1982, 86 percent of college-bound students with poor grades didn't graduate from college.
Average high school grades
Percentage attaining A.A. or higher
Percentage not attaining any degree
Seniors with college plans (A.A. or higher) who complete an A.A. degree or higher within 10 years of high school graduation.
Source: Beyond College for All; High School and Beyond data.
Misconception 2: College plans lead to increased school effort.
It is often assumed that planning to go to college makes students more motivated, giving them reason to work hard in high school. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. For many decades, work-bound students believed that high school achievement would not influence their future careers (Stinchcombe, 1965), but now many college-bound students also hold this belief. In a survey of over 2,000 seniors in 12 urban and suburban high schools, researchers found that almost 40 percent of college-bound students believed that school effort had little relevance for their future careers (Rosenbaum, 1998; cf. Steinberg, 1996).
Misconception 3: High school homework doesn't matter for college success.
Since open admissions policies allow everyone to enter college, no matter how poorly they do in high school, some students report that they can wait until college to exert academic effort. But research shows that effort during high school is absolutely essential. Take homework, for example: Students doing no homework end up with 1.2 years less education and 19 percent lower earnings than average. Students doing 15 hours or more a week of homework attain almost 1.5 more years of education and attain 16 percent higher earnings than average. This 2.7-year spread in educational attainment and 35 percent spread in earnings are both extremely large (especially considering that these outcomes are associated with variation in self-reported homework time in high school).
Misconception 4: Going to college means taking college-level classes.
If you are taking classes in a college, are you taking college classes? Not necessarily. Many college students" are actually in remedial courses—high school-level classes (or even lower) that give no college credits (Deil-Amen and Rosenbaum, 2002). The best estimates of the extent of remedial education come from careful analyses of college transcripts from national samples of students in the classes of 1982 and 1992. From 1982 to 1992 there has been substantial improvement in the need for remediation among students entering four-year colleges. Forty-four percent of those from the class of 1982, but only 25 percent from the class of 1992 (still too many), took at least one remedial course. Unfortunately, there has not been a similar improvement among students entering two-year colleges. Sixty-three percent of those from the class of 1982, and 61 percent from the class of 1992, took at least one remedial course (Adelman, 2004). A more recent survey in two urban community colleges found that 25 percent of students were taking three or more remedial courses (Deil-Amen and Rosenbaum, 2002).
Moreover, in an effort to reduce students' feelings of inferiority, college advisors often downplay the fact that courses are remedial. As a result, many students do not even realize the nature of their coursework. In one research survey, students were given a list of the colleges' remedial courses, asked which ones they had taken and whether the courses counted toward a degree. From interviews with administrators, the researchers knew that none of these courses counted toward a degree. Unfortunately, most students did not (see chart below). Among first-year students taking three remedial courses, 36 percent reported that these courses counted, and another 48 percent were not sure. Even among second-year students taking three remedial courses, 36 percent believed the courses counted for college credit and 44 percent were unsure (Deil-Amen and Rosenbaum, 2002).
Misconception 5: Going to college for a two- or four-year degree takes two or four years.
How long does a two-year associate's degree take? If you think the answer is obvious, you are wrong. At one community college, a top administrator confided that because of remedial needs, a "two-year associates degree" takes full-time students an average of 3.5 years to complete. Statistics like this are not widely known—with three serious implications. First, since the remedial courses often carry no credit, students who plan for two-year or four-year degrees discover that they cannot complete their degrees in the time they have scheduled or within the budget they have planned. Second, their failure to collect credits is exacerbated by the "secret" nature of the remedial courses; discovering after 1.5 years that you are still two years away from a two-year degree is not only demoralizing, but may present virtually insurmountable time and budget problems. Third, high school students heading toward college do not understand college remedial placements. They know that their older peers who graduated high school with poor grades went on to college—and they assume they can, as well. But most high school students probably do not realize that these "college students" are not accumulating college credits and are unlikely to graduate. This partial picture may encourage lax academic effort and college-for-all fantasies on the part of many high school students—maybe even on the part of school faculty. (These fantasies are fed by high school administrators who boast about the high percentage of students they send to college—but neglect to mention how few graduate. More on this later.)
Misconception 6: School counselors should not offer discouraging words about the hard work necessary for college success.
Given the widespread public belief in the misconceptions above, counselors rarely discourage college plans or suggest alternatives. A recent study in eight diverse urban and suburban high schools found that even if students had poor grades, school counselors did not dissuade them from attending college, nor did they warn students when they had poor chances of college success (Krei and Rosenbaum, 2001; Rosenbaum, Miller, and Krei, 1997). National data suggest that these practices are widespread. While only 32 percent of a national survey of seniors in 1982 indicated that their counselors urged them to go to college, 10 years later, fully 66 percent of seniors made the same statement (Boesel, 2001; Gray, 1996). Indeed, 57 percent of seniors in the bottom half of the academic rankings reported that counselors urged them to attend college.
In interviews we conducted with counselors, it was clear that counselors who do wish to warn students that they are unprepared for college believe that they lack the authority to do so (Rosenbaum et al., 1997). As one counselor said, "Who am I to burst their bubble?" At the same time, counselors report that when they warn students that they are unprepared for college, parents complain, and principals support the parents. Counselors are not sure they have the authority to be candid and to report that students are not well prepared for college. The following example, though just an anecdote, offers some sense of the pressures that counselors feel. A student with an IQ of 70 wanted to be a doctor, and although the counselor tried to explain the difficulties this student would face, he ultimately advised the student to attend "a two-year college first and see how it goes."
Clearly, some counselors do not feel free to give their professional opinions. If they are too candid, they can be accused of "low expectations," even if their concerns arise from students' school records. When counselors fear they may have to pay for honestly explaining students' future options, they back away from doing so. They not only yield to parents' wishes, but they sometimes change their initial advice to avoid trouble. Many counselors report that they advise students with D-averages to attend a community college and later transfer to a four-year college. One student with a D-average wanted to apply to Harvard, so his counselor suggested that he could begin at community college and then look to transfer to Harvard after two years. The college-for-all mentality is a perfect way to avoid unpleasant issues that are likely to arise as students make plans for the future.
In the past, counselors often acted as "gatekeepers," advising low-achieving students on alternatives to college (Cicourel and Kitsuse, 1963; Rosenbaum, 1976), including providing advice about which non-college training options could lead to well-paid, respected occupations and even using their contacts to place non-college-bound students into respectable jobs. (For more information on the importance of high school for the non-college bound, see the sidebar "All Good Jobs Don't Require a College Degree....")
* * *
If heavy-handed gatekeeping by counselors has indeed become less common, no one will grieve its loss; only two generations ago, counselors often had a decisive, sometimes secretive, impact on which colleges students would apply and go to. But if counselors are not giving students the information they need about the requirements for completing college, then many students may be aimlessly drifting through high school and community colleges without any notion of what requirements they will have to meet to earn a degree. In that case, gatekeeping has not ended, it has only been deferred, and many students will haplessly find themselves failing out of college without any forewarning of what is happening. Today, many students are making college plans that are not likely to be realized. Parents, administrators, counselors, and teachers must work together to understand the connection between high school effort and college success—and to convey this reality to students. It should go without saying that counselors can't take on this countercultural mission on their own. In the next article, high school staff can see what students need to know to be prepared for college; for distribution to students, a college fact sheet can be found here: "What You Need to Do in High School If You Want to Graduate from College."
The New Rules of the Game
Beyond the negative effect that the college-for-all push has on individual students, there is the broader negative effect it has on high schools' academic climate. Seeing that college access is guaranteed, some students believe that they can challenge teachers' authority and suffer no penalty; some teachers may respond to their diminished authority by leaving the profession or by reducing their demands on students (Sedlak et al., 1986). While these changes have their greatest impact on low-achieving students, even high-achieving students will be in classes where teachers' authority is questioned, and such students may wonder if they could prepare for college with less effort.
Those looking for justice may see it in the finding that unmotivated students will end up worse off—stuck with remedial classes, fewer college credits and degrees, and lower earnings. But this is not a happy ending. Students waste their high school years, disrupt high school for others, drag down the standards in high school, and force colleges to provide high school courses as an increasingly larger segment of their curriculum.
How can we improve the situation? Since the playing field has drastically changed in the world of higher education, new "rules of the game" have arisen. New high school practices must be established to match them. These new rules of college can be summarized succinctly:
All students can plan to get a college degree; but if they are unprepared, they must be willing to repeat high school courses in college, spending the extra time, money, and effort in non-credit, remedial courses.
1. High schools should monitor and publicize the academic preparation and college completion rates of their college-bound graduates. It is common practice for high schools to trumpet the percentage of kids they send on to college—as if this were the major indicator of a high school's success. Instead of focusing on just the number of seniors who go to college, high school administrators should monitor their graduates' preparation for college-credit classes (through, for example, achievement test scores and success in the first year of college) and brag about that: College preparation, not college attendance, is the real achievement. They should also inform students about degree completion rates for prior graduates (by showing the percentage of students who earn college degrees broken down by grade point average, for example). In addition, high schools should provide information about various local colleges, including degree-completion rates and the average number of years students took to complete their degrees.
2. High schools should require students aiming for college to take modified college placement exams. Society needs to give students clear information about the achievement prerequisites for college courses. Since colleges already give tests to assess whether incoming freshmen are assigned to credit or remedial classes, one solution is relatively straightforward: These tests could be modified and given to high school students to tell them whether they are ready for college-level work. If colleges do not want to prepare a new test, they could recommend an existing one or simply give high schools the previous year's freshman placement exams. These exams could be given to high school seniors, and a modified exam could be given to high school sophomores, to tell them whether they are making satisfactory progress toward college. If not, students must improve their achievement, revise their goals, or accept the fact that they will have to take remedial courses in college.
Having high school students take college placement exams may appear unnecessary since more and more states are developing high school exit exams. But in many states the high school exit exams were developed to assess minimum competence. So every year many students pass a high school exit exam, but then do poorly on a college placement exam and end up in remedial courses. According to a recent study that compared 66 state high school exams (35 in English and 31 in mathematics) to a set of standards for university success found that just three of them (all in English) could offer useful information about students' preparation for college (Conley, 2003).
In 2000, Kentucky became the first state in the nation to pass a state law creating an online mathematics assessment developed specifically to let high school sophomores and juniors know if they are ready for college-level algebra and calculus. Called the Kentucky Early Mathematics Testing Program (KEMTP), the test assesses Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II and was developed by high school and college mathematics teachers from Kentucky. This purely diagnostic assessment does not become part of the high school transcript and is not used for admissions to college; it does give students (and their schools) immediate feedback on which topics they have—and have not—mastered and urges students to use the one to two years they have left in high school to address those weaknesses. (To learn more about KEMTP, go to www.mathclass.org/welcome-kemtp.htm (link is external).)
3. High schools should clear up the misconceptions. Counselors are the front line here, and they'll need a lot of support. All school personnel should be well-armed with the facts and encouraged to convey them to students. And the facts are clear: High school performance matters. Hard work in high school matters. Doing homework matters. Taking rigorous courses matters. Getting good grades matters. All of these are closely connected to whether students succeed in college. (And, interestingly, they're also closely connected to whether non-college bound students succeed in their jobs.) High schools should also make sure students are well informed about college remedial courses, specifically: These are the courses they will be enrolled in if their high school work is not up to snuff; these courses do not bear college credit; taking them amounts to paying for an education that could have been had for free in high school; and students who have to take several of them almost never reach college graduation. (The sidebar "What You Need to Do in High School If You Want to Graduate from College" is a student-friendly fact sheet on the importance of high school achievement for college.)
4. High schools should serve college- and work-bound students equally well. Teachers, counselors, and administrators dream of students working hard, doing well in school, and graduating from college. It is a wonderful dream—but that doesn't mean it is in every student's best interest. Those who haven't done well academically and those whose interests are not in the liberal arts are best served with an honest look at their current chances in college and a serious examination of the alternatives, such as training opportunities and job placement assistance. The fact is, despite the economy's growing preference for college degrees, there are many good jobs available to high school graduates. (For more information on the importance of high school for the non-college bound, see the sidebar "All Good Jobs Don't Require a College Degree...") Postponing college is also a viable option. Many students enter college when they are older, often after several years of work. More than half of the students in two-year colleges are older than 24, and about one-quarter of them are over 35 (NCES 1999). Their age and employment may give them the experience to make better course choices, the maturity to be more disciplined students, skills that will help them pass some courses, and perhaps even employer-paid tuition benefits.
* * *
Too often, we think students' problems are inside of them, and we blame students' poor motivation. However, most students tend to be motivated if they see incentives for effort. But in the case of high school performance, we obscure what is at stake for most students. While top quartile students (those aiming for highly selective colleges) are told the incentives for better grades and test scores, the vast majority of students get the impression that high school achievement, grades, and test scores are irrelevant.
Students must realize that high school grades are important: Grades strongly predict future careers. There are strong incentives for school effort and students can improve their adult attainments by improving their high school grades. Although most colleges are not selective—and most unselective colleges (and most employers) ignore grades in selecting applicants—even unselective colleges and employers discover that youths with better high school grades are more successful in attaining college degrees and higher earnings.
The American educational system has taken a bold step in making college accessible to so many students. However, the revolution is still incomplete, and research has identified a number of difficulties in educators', parents', and students' understandings of college and what it requires. This revolution poses new challenges and a set of unintended consequences. We will need thoughtful solutions to address them.
James E. Rosenbaum is professor of sociology, education, and social policy at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow with the university's Institute for Policy Research. He is author of Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half and Crossing the Class and Color Lines: From Public Housing to White Suburbia.
*Grade point average is the easiest-to-use predictor of college success. Research by Clifford Adelman (1999), however, shows that the intensity and quality of one's high school curriculum is actually an even more powerful predictor. But since course content and teacher expectations vary widely from school to school, making use of this indicator can be difficult. Nonetheless, the gist of both Adelman's and my research is clear: College-bound students should take the most difficult courses possible and work hard to earn the highest grades possible. To read more about Adelman's findings, see High School Preparation Is the Best Predictor of College Graduation. (back to article)
Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the Tool Box: Academic intensity, attendance patterns, and bachelor's degree attainment. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
Adelman, C. (2004). Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972–2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
American Diploma Project (2004). Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts. Washington, D.C.: Achieve, Inc., The Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Boesel, D. (2001). The college movement and its critics. Phi Delta Kappan, 82, 537–542.
Carnevale, A. and Desrochers, D. (2002). "The missing middle: aligning education and the knowledge economy." Office of vocational and adult education, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., April.
Cicourel, A. V. and Kitsuse, J. I. (1963). The educational decision-makers. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs Merrill.
Conley, D. (2003). Mixed messages: What state high school tests communicate about student readiness for college. Eugene, Ore.: University of Oregon.
Deil-Amen, R. and Rosenbaum, J. E. (2002). The unintended consequences of stigma-free remediation. Sociology of Education, 75, 249–268.
Gray, K. (1996). The baccalaureate game: Is it right for all teens? Phi Delta Kappan, 77, 528–534.
Grubb, W. N. (1996). Working in the middle. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Krei, M. S. and Rosenbaum, J. E. (2001). Career and college advice to the forgotten half: What do counselors and vocational teachers advise? Teachers College Record, 103, 823–843.
Miller, S. R. (1998). "Shortcut: High school grades as a signal of human capital." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 20, 299–311.
Murnane, R. J. and Levy, F. (1996). Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy. New York: The Free Press.
NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) (1999). Digest of educational statistics 1999. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
NELS (1992). National Educational Longitudinal Survey. Washington D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics.
Rosenbaum, J. E. (1976). Making inequality: The hidden curriculum of high school tracking. New York: Wiley.
Rosenbaum, J. E. (1998). College-for-all: Do students understand what college demands? Social Psychology of Education, 2, 55–80.
Rosenbaum, J. E. (2001). Beyond college for all. New York: Russell Sage.
Rosenbaum, J.E. and Gordon-McKeon, B. (2003). "College for all: How has it changed?" Unpublished paper, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University.
Rosenbaum, J. E., Miller, S., and Krei, M. (1997). "What role should counselors have?" In K. K. Wong (Ed.), Advances in educational policy, (Volume 3, pp. 79–92). Greenwood, Conn.: JAI Press.
Sedlak, M., Wheeler, C., Pullin, D., and Cusick, D. (1986). Selling students short. New York: Teachers College Press.
Shapiro, D. and Iannozzi, M. (1999). The benefits to bridging work and school: Results of the 1997 National Employer Survey. Philadelphia: National Center for Postsecondary Education, University of Pennsylvania.
Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the classroom. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Stinchcombe, A. L. (1965). Rebellion in a high school. Chicago: Quadrangle.
It's Time to Tell the Kids: If You Don't Do Well in High School, You Won't Do Well in College (or on the Job)
By James E. Rosenbaum
What You Need to Do in High School If You Want to Graduate from College (PDF)
(Flier for Posting and Distributing to Students)
All Good Jobs Don't Require a College Degree...
But Getting a Good Job without a College Degree Depends a Lot on High School Effort—and the Support a High School Provides
High School Preparation Is the Best Predictor of College Graduation
What Does It Mean to Be Prepared for College?
(Or for Jobs in the High-Growth, High-Performance Workplace)
By the American Diploma Project
Members of the faculty, parents, guests, and graduates, I have chosen as my topic the complex subject of your ancestors. Not, of course, your biological ancestors, about whom I know nothing, but your spiritual ancestors, about whom I know a little. To be specific, I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.
The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation.
About 2,000 years ago, the vitality of their culture declined and these people began to disappear. But not what they had created. Their imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that today it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago. The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders—ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.
Like the Athenians, the Visigoths also disappeared, but not before they had ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages, from which it took Europe almost a thousand years to recover.
Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us—in this hall, in this community, in our city—there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values.
To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge, and especially the quest for knowledge, in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.
To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind’s most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence indistinguishable from another. A Visigoth’s language aspires to nothing higher than the cliché.
To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.
To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.
And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged.
Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. You must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our classrooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.
And so, whether you were aware of it or not, the purpose of your having been at this university was to interest you in the Athenian way. We cannot know on this day how many of you will choose that way and how many will not. But I will tell you this, with which I will close: I can wish for you no higher compliment than that in the future it will be reported that among your graduating class the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.