At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein takes up a piece E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and I wrote in the American Prospect a few months back titled “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test.” The essay explained why, contrary to popular belief, reading is not an all-purpose, transferable skill, and argued for a domain-specific approach to reading instruction and assessment.
But a commenter on Bauerlein’s Brainstorm blog wants to know why the professor is taking up the issue at all. The piece, after all, was in an issue of the Prospect concerned with getting kids to read by third grade. What does this have to do with higher education? Everything, Bauerlein responds.
Just look at the numbers of freshmen who end up in remedial reading courses. And, as I argued awhile back, according to ACT, the biggest college readiness problem in reading is, precisely, inability to comprehend “complex texts.” The point of the post is to argue that reading comprehension doesn’t improve simply by practicing the “skill” again and again. Readers need to build domain knowledge in order to handle texts at the higher levels.
Right. And that doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it be remediated at the college level.
Ed reformers take note: if you’re not concerned with building domain knowledge in students, increasing graduation rates is only doing half the work (and the easy half at that). If kids aren’t prepared to succeed in college–and the evidence cited by Bauerlein suggests they’re not–then what have we really accomplished?
Walt Gardner, in an unrelated post over at EdWeek, considers President Obama’s recent declaration that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” and sees a divide between “Determinists” and “Romanticists.” Determinists like Charles Murray hold that “only a small minority of high school graduates possesses the intelligence to succeed in college.” Romanticists like Arne Duncan believe far more students should go to college. “Which side in the debate is right? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Success in college is not solely the result of intelligence or aptitude. Perseverance and dedication play a powerful role that is not fully appreciated,” Garner concludes.
Right again. But surely preparation is an even more powerful determinant of college success or failure. “The chief problem in American education,” notes Hirsch, “is not diversity of income, race, and ethnicity but diversity of preparation.”
If we continue to insist on treating reading as a formal skill, while dismissing the importance of the slow, steady buildup of domain-knowledge, we are not adequately preparing kids to succeed in college–a phenomenon most vividly appreciated by Bauerlein and his colleagues who work with the finished products (and only the “successful” ones!) of our K-12 education system.
If we’re setting kids up to fail in college, what have we really gained? Gardner puts it well: ”Let’s hope that the record percentage of female and male high school graduates now enrolled in college get their money’s worth. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but let’s not forget either that debt is a terrible thing to carry.”