A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 09 2011

On the Race to College

I am, by virtue of being a 12th grade English teacher, in an interesting position. I am the last “obstacle” a student faces before s/he can walk across the stage and receive a high school diploma. Fail my class and fail to graduate on time.

There are other ways by which I am in a unique spot. 12th grade teaching is, in many ways, different from 10th or 11th grade teaching (what I’ve done, up until this semester):

  • For the 12th grade teacher, the DC CAS is far in the academic past. Unlike most states, which have graduation exams, DC does not have an exam passing requirement. There is little to no “imposed” testing pressure. Students, by this point, should have already taken the SAT, so that is also out of the picture.
  • For the most part, because they’ve made it this far, 12th grade students are better behaved than the younger initiates. The sad reality is that in urban districts like DCPS, too many students drop out with each successive year in high school. By senior year, only the strong remain.
  • Finally–most importantly–12th grade is focused on getting students into college.

When I started teaching 12th grade earlier this calendar year, I didn’t realize just how much I’d have to do to ensure that students transitioned seamlessly into their post-graduation lives. To put things simply, there is a lot for a 12th grade teacher to do to prepare students for life after graduation.

I’ve hosted countless school visits whether from local community and technical colleges like Westwood College, Fortis College and the Art Institute of Washington. Students have gone further afield on field trips to, for example, Coppin State University. Senior assemblies occur frequently. Announcements go over the PA about the most recent students being accepted by, and winning scholarships to, colleges.

Our college advising system appears to be functional. Thank goodness. The goal is for every student to have at least one college acceptance. When I poll my students, they generally seem to have an idea of what they need to be doing before June 2011 rolls around. Most have completed their FAFSAs. Heck, some already have an array of college acceptances. But, all told, few actually have acceptances.

It’s a busy, busy race at our school. And the race doesn’t end until every student has a post-high school plan that includes the word “college.”


Yet, I sometimes wonder about the appropriateness of the “race” to college. At our school–and, from what I can tell from colleagues, at most other high schools in the district–the emphasis is almost entirely on getting students to attend a 4-year college. I agree with the goal in theory. But, given what I see on a day-to-day basis, I’m not sure that the “everyone must go!” approach is always right.

In an ideal world, yes, every student in the country would strive for a college education (and beyond). Given the reality of an increasingly competitive work environment, and the higher proportion of jobs requiring higher education, “college” should be the status quo goal for all students and a well-functioning public education system would get students there.

Yet, our world is not ideal and we have a system that makes attaining this goal difficult. Having such a single-minded focus (as my school does), without considering certain realities, can do more harm to students than good.

Let’s take a look at a brief excerpt from one 12th grader’s essay. The assignment asked students to choose an ancient hero that we read (from Beowulf, Gilgamesh or The Iliad) and compare that hero to a modern-day hero. I gave students a very detailed, scaffolded packet with exemplar paragraphs and sections to help them write. Here are the last 100 words of the 200-word essay (one fourth to one fifth of the required 750-1000 words).

Bear waft is his on type of hero. When he was walking around not looking for trouble, (because he was a big man) he did not late that them get to his head. Bear waft fight then man he thought in his mind that he was helping the people. He now that he was going to die and he that he was going to die, so he went out saving the people of his town.

They both toke up for what they believe in. when they se a person in need of help the come to there side. There roll model to the young kids.

The essay speaks to the sad reality that there are at least some students–in 12th grade–who don’t even have the most basic of basic language skills. The sadder reality is that this student is not an anomaly at my school. There are far too many students who simply do not have the knowledge or skills to succeed in college. The best hope would be for said student to receive some serious tutoring, attend remedial classes at community college and then move on up to the big leagues.

So am I expressing a lack of faith in this student if I suggest that she consider other options besides college? Would pursuing a trade–for instance, in cosmetology–be expecting too little?

What makes the situation for a 12th grader different from that of a 6th grader is that, sadly and unfortunately, far too much time has elapsed for the years-behind student to get where she needs to be, skills- and knowledge-wise, to be prepared for college.

Though I generally believe in “it is never too late to…” the truth is that there are definitely things for which it is “too late.” What choices one makes now will certainly affect one later, sometimes in an insignificant way, but other times in major ways.

Education is one of those goods for which its absence over a period of time can create a cumulative burden that is near insurmountable. Though I’ve seen some students make significant progress in the short time I’ve seen them as 12th graders, I truthfully think that for those who have always been very far behind, catching up at this late stage in the K-12 game will be extremely difficult.

As a result, I would appreciate it if we allowed for the reality that some students simply are not ready for college. Learning a trade or directly getting employed at graduation might be best for the student. Though this may mean constrained life opportunities, this outcome would be better than forcing this student onto a college campus and seeing him or her drop out–and losing any motivation to continue education in the future.

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4 Responses

  1. Catherine

    Hey Mr. K, I’m currently a college advisor (in an AmeriCorps program) working at a large urban high school in northern Virginia. I see countless students who I believe just don’t have the skills and maturity YET to be successful in a 4-year college environment but there is unbelievable pressure to push these kids in that direction by not only the school, but also the students’ families and peers. On top of that, it’s painful to see these students so psyched about the college acceptances they do manage to get and the unbelievable pride of their families, only to face the reality and overwhelming burden of the cost of higher education these days. If you’re not a strong student it’s hard to get scholarships or to get accepted to the school with great financial aid. Luckily, however, I believe recently that community colleges have started overcoming the stigma and popular belief that 2-year schools aren’t as good as 4-year schools. And when considering the significantly lower cost, and the fact that local community colleges in the D.C. Metro area are suburb schools, it really is the best option for A LOT of students.

    I just hope that high schools and communities soon realize that pushing all students down this direct path to a 4-year school might be more harm than good when these unprepared students drop out or can no longer afford tuition. We should be showing students that there are MANY paths to a 4-year college degree (and beyond) and we should encourage each student to find their own path that will make them most successful and happy.

  2. Thank you for your perspective. I agree that students should be encouraged to find their own paths. I also agree that community colleges are truly a key element in this race. NOVA is a great example. Given your role as college advisor, in northern Virginia, no less, I’m sure you’ve already heard about the New America Foundation report on NOVA’s successes (http://education.newamerica.net/sites/newamerica.net/files/policydocs/NOVA_Report_Final_2.pdf). I read this with much interest last summer after learning that some of my students wanted to go there before 4-year college.

  3. Mr. Minot

    GREAT post and really insightful. Here’s a really relevant article that I read and wrote about last semester as one of our reflections for our Public Policy classes. Just thought I would share:


    • Thanks for the comment and the link. I immediately recognized it from one of the most recent American Educator issues. I had quickly glanced at it but will have to re-read it.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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