High School Teachers…Preparing Your Students to Succeed in College Can Be Hazardous to Your Professional Health

My recent blog titled Why Your Freshman Year in College Will NOT Be 13th Grade must have struck a particularly sensitive nerve in a very large group of people because it has received over 7,000 views.  This post described the plight of my freshmen who told me they were:

(1) unprepared for the higher academic expectations placed on them by their professors,

(2) often unable to cope with the new level of responsibility they must exhibit in college, and

(3) challenged by their inability to effectively manage their time and prioritize their activities.

I have a strong feeling that the group most interested in—and most offended by—my message was high school teachers, who may have mistakenly assumed that I was blaming them for the failure of my freshmen.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  As the creator and director of the Indiana High School Psychology Teachers Association Conference, I have had the pleasure of interacting with hundreds of highly competent high school teachers who are fully committed to the preparation of their students for both college and the workplace.  It would have been easy for me to jump to the conclusion that high school teachers are to blame for this dilemma but, as you read the remainder of this post that describes the two stages of my attempt to investigate the causes of my students’ distress, this would have been a false—and dreadfully misleading—deduction.

Stage One: Gather Suggestions From Students

After discovering the ways in which my students were challenged by their transition from secondary to higher education, I decided to gain some insight into the causes of these challenges by asking them to create suggestions for their former high school teachers that would enable them to prepare their future students for a more successful transition to college. I performed a content analysis of my students’ responses and used the results to create five suggestion summaries.  The underlying theme in all these suggestions is that my students firmly believed they would have been better prepared for college if their high school teachers had provided them with more opportunities to behave in the responsible ways that are required for success in higher education.

  1. Give us a syllabus on the first day of class that has the schedule for the class planned out for the whole semester (e.g., tests dates, deadlines for papers, and grading scales), and then stick to that syllabus the way college professors do. Don’t tell us at the end of each class what we will be doing during the next class period. That allows us to be irresponsible because we don’t have to read the syllabus to know what we are expected to do. Please help us to become as responsible as possible when we leave high school and go to college.
  1. Don’t accept lame or undocumented excuses about why we don’t have assignments done, and don’t allow us to sweet talk you into letting us make up tests that we are unprepared to take. College professors seldom accept these types of excuses because they attempt to be as fair as possible by making sure all their students have the same amount of time to study for tests.
  1. Be sure to teach us how to be academically honest by requiring that we cite all the sources we use to support what we write in our papers. Most importantly, don’t ignore situations in which you suspect we may be plagiarizing.  We need to know exactly what plagiarism is so we can avoid it when we get to college.  College students who are caught plagiarizing fail classes, are sometimes kicked out of school, or are not allowed to graduate.
  1. Don’t let us pass classes just because we earned a lot of homework points or extra credit. In college, we will be graded on our ability to demonstrate that we have actually learned the material we have been assigned by passing tests and writing papers.  In college, students are graded on how well they mastered the material, not on the amount of effort they expended  to learn it.
  1. Don’t teach us the answers to all the questions on your tests. Be sure to ask us some questions that come from the reading assignments you haven’t covered in class.  In college, we must learn to be independent learners by reading and comprehending the information in our textbooks without having to rely on our professors to explain everything to us.  Our professors are more than willing to help us with difficult-to-understand information in our textbooks when we ask them questions in class, but they are unwilling to “spoon-feed” us all the information we are supposed to learn from our reading assignments.

Stage Two: Discover How High School Teachers Respond to My Students’ Suggestions

The suggestions I received from my students made complete sense to me, but I wondered if high school teachers would find them to be equally credible.  I put my project on hold for two years when I retired and moved to Atlanta, but I revived it when I discovered that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution hosted a blog on educational topics.  Sensing an opportunity to discover how high school teachers would respond to my students’ suggestions, I posted them and, within less than 6 hours I received more than 80 comments.  I had hit another nerve.  What I discovered was surprising, poignant, and very revealing.  The vast majority of the teachers’ comments agreed with my students’ suggestion that high school teachers should do all they can to help students become more responsible, but one comment in particular:

“I wonder if teachers are the proper recipients for this message.”

made me aware that perhaps there are also formidable forces in place that prevent this from happening.  A content analysis of the 80 comments quickly produced two such forces—administrators and parents—which are illustrated by the following statements taken from the blog’s comments section.

“Students, this is exactly what your teachers would like to do, but are not ALLOWED to do by the very folks in charge of the schools. It is a serious problem and one of the main reasons I no longer teach. We know coddling is not good for you.”

“I had a student plagiarize an essay last year.  One of those cases where the kid doesn’t even change the font after copying and pasting the plagiarized portion.  I write him up.  The parents retain a lawyer.  The school suggests that I let it go.  Don’t blame teachers.  Blame parents for their kids not having a sense of responsibility or intellectual integrity.”

“What college students want to tell their high school teachers: Be tougher on us. Force us to be responsible.   Let me change that headline to What college students should tell their PARENTS:  Be tougher on us.  Force us to be responsible.  Let us get the grades we deserve (like we will in college).”

“I tried to hold students accountable by giving them assignments with due dates and expecting them to be turned in on time. When I gave them failing grades, I was told my teaching was flawed and needed professional development. The idea that the students were the problem is/was anathema to the administration.”

 “Amen!!  We need to raise the bar, but we are held captive by no child left behind, race to the top, the new teacher evaluation system, and school administrators who force us to pass all.”

“As a teacher, I would love to hold my students responsible. Unfortunately, when I try, I am met with resistance from doting, enabling, hovering parents.”

“I was once in a faculty meeting where our principal (since promoted) said: “Our job is not to prepare them for college; our job is to get them INTO college.”

 “No disagreement from me on the plagiarism topic.  The school made it clear that they did not want to go to court and that it would reflect poorly on me if they had to spend time and resources on the incident. Their argument was that there was no written documentation that the student was informed that they were not allowed to plagiarize on that specific assignment.  Absurd?  Yes.”

“Yes indeed there seems to be a dichotomy here.  We have parents and administrators jump all over those of us who require thinking, learning, and doing.  I have even been accused of being a ‘bad’ teacher by parents because their children’s grades weren’t what they were accustomed to being given.  I teach higher level science where critical thinking has to be learned and demonstrated if students are to succeed.  At some point the beat downs get the best of you and you dumb it down to the point of silliness.”

I was shocked by these comments, and I wondered if their passionate tones and depressing contents were a product of Georgia’s unique educational history and environment.  So I traveled back to Indiana, attended the 2014 Indiana High School Psychology Teachers Association Conference, and chaired a session in which I shared the comments with the attendees and asked them if they had experienced the same administrative and parental pressures as their Georgian counterparts.  Their answer was a decidedly unambiguous “Yes.”  While this confirmation of my data was based on a relatively small sample, my confidence in it was buoyed by the fact that it came from a group of non-Georgian educators whom I had come to know and trust for the past 15 years.   My next validity check will take place this summer during the annual APA / Clark University Workshop for High School Teachers in Massachusetts, where I will pose the same question to the attendees who constitute a diverse sample of carefully vetted high school psychology teachers from all over the United States.

The Next Stage . . .

I plan to continue this project to its next stage with the help of the summer workshop attendees.  If they also endorse the validity of the comments from my Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog, I will work with them to create the following products.

  1. Practical and realistic strategies they can implement at their schools that will begin the process of convincing administrators and parents that collegiate success (a) can be increased by assignments that will require students to strengthen the same skills and work habits they will need when they transition from high school to college and (b) will be decreased if they are not exposed to these types of assignments.
  2. Lesson plans designed to strengthen the skills and work habits needed for collegiate success whose outcomes can be accurately assessed and whose value can be communicated in such a clear and compelling manner that administrators, parents and students will find them difficult to ignore or refute.

A Sincere Note of Appreciation

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Traci, who posted the following comment on my Why Your Freshman Year in College Will NOT Be 13th Grade blog.  The quality of her writing, the sincerity of her message, her obvious student-centeredness, and the even-handed way in which she addressed the sensitive issues I raised in my blog makes me proud to call her my academic colleague in the battle for student success whose outcome will surely determine the fate of our nation in an increasingly competitive world.

“As a high school teacher, I completely agree with the points made in the article. I feel though, I must defend the way that we must teach (or have been forced to teach) in high school. Most of us would like to make our classes more rigorous and encourage students to be more independent, but because we have to answer to parents, administrators and test scores, it is quite difficult to actually put that into practice. Parents are at times their child’s own worst enemy and do not allow them to challenge themselves for fear of achieving a lower grade. Over the thirteen years I have been teaching the amount of hand holding with students has only increased. For every assignment we are expected to remind students in class of the assignment multiple times, write it on the board, have a twitter account to remind them, send out reminders to special education teachers, and even notify some parents by email. And if the student still fails to turn it in? Be sure that for the most part, it will still be blamed on us, and the student will be provided extra time to complete the work. Unless a student takes an AP class, they are rarely exposed to expectations that will prepare them for a college class. While the curriculum may be challenging in other classes, the amount of effort a teacher must make to get students to accomplish anything undermines their ability to be successfully independent in college.”

Final Thoughts…And a Call to Action

I have taught, advised, and mentored students for more than four decades, and the purpose of all my teaching, advising, and mentoring activities has been to help students make successful transitions from high school to college, from one level of college to the next, and from college to graduate school and the workforce.  This blog is my most recent attempt to continue this challenging crusade by issuing a call to action to those who are in the position to help me do so (e.g., high school students, college students, high school teachers, high school administrators, parents of high school students, college faculty, and those who hire high school and college graduates).  Let me know your thoughts.  The problem I have described in this blog is wide-spread, deeply ingrained, and seldom discussed…and it will take the concerted and coordinated actions of our entire academic village to begin to solve it.  This may very well be the issue that is American education’s most obvious, most frustrating, and potentially most damaging “elephant in the room” that everyone knows is there, very few are willing to acknowledge, and none so far have been able to fix.  Based on research that tracked 23,000 students from 9th grade through graduation in 2013 and beyond, the Education Trust recently reached the following truly horrifying conclusion.  “Only 8 percent of U.S. high school graduates complete a curriculum that prepares them well for college and the workplace.  Even fewer complete those course sequences with grades that would suggest they mastered the content.”  The patterns of courses students took and the grades they received prompted these researchers to conclude that students were “meandering toward graduation” by focusing on simply accumulating sufficient credit to graduate rather than on engaging in a strategic attempt to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in college and the workforce after they graduate. The Education Trust’s findings also raise “questions about how well adults in schools are guiding students along pathways that provide strong preparation for college, job training, or the workplace.”

The strong, quantitative data of the Education Trust’s big research project has surely awakened us to the educational havoc the elephant has wreaked in our room.  The results of the small qualitative studies reported in this blog can serve as the beginning of the challenging process of identifying and understanding some of the sources and causes of its destructive tendencies.  Together, these two very different methods of inquiry can help us to become aware of the mayhem the elephant has produced, begin to understand how and why it caused this mess, and provide us with the motivation to create and the resolve to implement strategies designed to reduce its harmful behaviors in the future.

About the Author

Dr. Appleby received his BA from Simpson College in 1969 and his PhD from Iowa State University in 1972. During his four-decade career, he chaired the Marian University Psychology Department, was the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the IUPUI Psychology Department, and served as the Associate Dean of the IUPUI Honors College. He used the results of his research on teaching, learning, advising, and mentoring to create strategies that enable college students to adapt to their educational environment, acquire academic competence, set realistic goals, and achieve their career aspirations. He published over 100 books and articles (including The Savvy Psychology Major); made over 600 conference and other professional presentations (including 24 invited keynote addresses); received 44 institutional, regional, and national awards for teaching, advising, mentoring, and service; and was honored for his contributions to the science and profession of psychology by being named a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Midwestern Psychological Association, and as the 30th distinguished member of Psi Chi (the International Honor Society in Psychology). Most importantly, during his 13 years at IUPUI, he was designated as a mentor by 777 graduating psychology majors, 222 of whom indicated he was their most influential mentor by selecting the following sentence to describe his impact: “This professor influenced the whole course of my life and his effect on me has been invaluable.”