The city of Hoover, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham, has a school system whose standardized test scores are generally ranked high in the state of Alabama. At the September 25 meeting of the Hoover school board, I tried to make the case that Hoover City Schools, like almost all school districts in the country, including the other highest regarded suburban ones, do not do a good job of developing students' understanding and reasoning ability. I asked the board to state that teaching to develop student understanding of material and student reasoning ability was an important goal of the system. The board demurred, saying that they did not tell their excellent teaching staff what to do. Further, the superintendent said the district struck what he considered to be the right balance between teaching facts and developing student understanding and reasoning skills. He had said on another occasion that college faculty tell him Hoover students were already very well-prepared for college.
Since that was at odds with the views of individual college teachers
I knew, I called Auburn University, the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa),
and Birmingham-Southern College (a regionally prestigious private college)
-- three schools attended by large numbers of Hoover students -- to see
what some faculty members responsible for freshmen or general undergraduate
programs thought about the preparedness of Hoover (and other suburban)
students regarding their ability to understand and analyze material and
to speak and write coherently and logically. I called faculty members
who were both teachers and administrators from two different colleges within
Auburn University and from two different colleges within the University
of Alabama. The two Birmingham-Southern professors taught and administrated
major cross-campus freshmen and undergraduate programs.
All of the above said that students were not good at thinking, reasoning, analyzing, understanding. The mildest expression of this was from one University of Alabama professor who was reluctant to, as he put it, "bash" high schools, but who thought that all schools and colleges, from the elementary years on up, could do a better job of teaching students to think better. He thought that was difficult to do. The second mildest expression was from the other University of Alabama professor who said that students at the University were by and large well-prepared for freshmen courses, which he said did not require much analytic or reasoning skills, but that when they were introduced, beginning late in the sophomore year, to courses that required what he called "thinking outside the box" (and what I would simply call thinking) -- few students could do it. That did not trouble him, however because he considered that problem to be normal. Apparently, like many people, he believes that if a problem is sufficiently wide-spread it is then not a problem, or at least not one that needs to be addressed.
The others were not as charitable. Two of the professors laughed when I told them the superintendent's claim. One of the Auburn professors said that the number one complaint of teachers was that "students can't think." She said she had hours of anecdotal evidence for anyone who might care to listen. She also said that it was generally most difficult for those students from the affluent school districts where standardized test scores were normally the highest. She said typically these are the students who have learned the best how to jump through academic hoops, and that when there are no hoops – no specific instructions, directions or formulas, no specific list of facts to memorize, no pre-set recipes to follow to get a grade – these students are lost. They not only cannot think for themselves but they do not understand what that even means. If you just tell them to analyze a piece of non-fiction, they do not know how to begin; they want to know what kinds of things they are supposed to say. She also believed that in those high school classrooms where teachers typically thought they were teaching students to interpret material, students basically just memorized the teachers' interpretations without actually doing any interpreting or analyzing on their own. She said that one of the most popular essay topics students at Auburn choose to write near the end of the term is "How My Education Did Not Prepare Me For College."
The other professor at Auburn described their program as heavily analytic. Students are required to understand principles and practices and to be able to reason through situations presented to them. He said that students fell into two groups, representing essentially the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. There were students who could do it very well and students who could not do it at all, and that the overwhelming majority of students from all school districts were in the latter category.
One Birmingham-Southern professor said that students were fairly well-prepared for writing from the standpoint of mechanics, but could not deal with content. He said he did not quite understand how they had been taught mechanics without content, but that is what seems to have happened. He said students could not analyze material. The other Birmingham-Southern professor said students had the most difficulty writing papers that required advocacy and argumentation. She said students need practice to develop analytic and reasoning skills.
Many of the above said that students basically just want to know what they need to know for the test or what they need to write for a writing assignment. Having to think about something or to analyze a piece of writing or a situation is not considered by students to be sufficient direction for them, and having to present evidence and a solid case for their views in a clear, concise, coherent manner is a virtually impossible task. Some students even think it is unfair.
Boards of education across the state, including those recognized "best" in terms of standardized test scores, need to set teaching for reasoning and understanding as an important policy goal. And boards in "disadvantaged" districts need to do the same, because those are important skills at which their students could readily excel.