Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Preparing Students for College

Again this week, I heard the justification for an absurd policy (in this case: if you make up a standards-based quiz, you can't get as high a score as you would have if you had passed it the first time) being that it "prepares students for college, where you don't get second chances."  (I've also heard the same thing said about the real world.)  This may be the stupidest justification for educational malpractice I've heard, for two reasons.

  1. In college, and even more, in the real world, people are mostly reasonable.  How many times have you handed in some paperwork late for your job, or forgotten some important thing, and had people essentially say "It's okay, don't do it again" -- or even (gasp) not mention it at all?  In college, I memorably missed a make-up test for my German class because (soooo embarrassing) I mistranslated my teacher's instructions about time (given in German) and showed up an hour late.  I didn't fail, or get a zero, or even points off.  He laughed, said he'd wondered where I was, and then gave me the test anyway.

    The world itself is not reasonable; it obeys the laws of physics, which are notoriously amoral.  So the water in the pipe to my outside spigot really will freeze if I forget to drain it before a cold snap.  But if I forget to renew my license plate sticker, I pay a fine and get on with my life.  Sure, there are exceptions, and we love to spread those stories around--they're like fishing stories, only in reverse.  In real life, people get second chances: they're accepted back into colleges, or even elected vice-president (for two terms) after being caught red-handed plagiarizing.

    In fact, I've noticed that (at least for me) the circles I inhabit have gotten more reasonable:  while I have many notable frailties, I've learned workarounds over time (email myself any important information, have a phone that gets email, etc.), and I'm good at enough things that the people around me are willing to put up with the things I'm not good at.  I think that's true of most professional people:  we work our way into niches where we get to spend most of our time doing things that we're either pretty good or trying to get better at, and only a small fraction on things that we truly dislike and are abysmal.  Real life is not high school.  To paraphrase Dan Savage, "it gets better."
  2. EVEN IF college were the one-strike-you're-out system these teachers say it is, it seems obvious to me that the number one way to prepare kids for college is to actually teach them the academic skills and habits they will need to be successful there.  Sure, it's important to get things in on time, and to do well on quizzes the first time you take them.  But "on time" won't save a literary analysis paper that's an incoherent mash of plot summary and personal reflection: you have to be able to read and write, too.  And it's hard to learn calculus without a solid grounding in functions, graphs, and algebra.  So high schools should adopt policies that encourage students to go on developing those core skills, and recovering from their mistakes, rather than telling them that mistakes are insurmountable.  And isn't that exactly what "no late work" or "no retake" policies say?
The point of draconian policies in high school is to discourage kids from making mistakes.  But everyone makes mistakes; the point is to learn from them.  So I'm not saying there should be no penalties, ever, for late work, or for screwing up an assignment the first time (I rather like "you have to show me you can do it right.").  But those penalties should give kids incentives to learn, not teach them the mostly-false lesson that you can't recover from your mistakes.  Because in the real world, people make mistakes all the time, and learn from them.  Wouldn't teaching kids how to do that be the best preparation of all?