What does “college and career readiness” actually mean?

What does “college and career readiness” actually mean?

On the surface, everyone’s favorite buzzword certainly seems unobjectionable enough. In addition to being short, snappy, and alliterative (all good qualities in a buzzword), who could possibly argue that high school students shouldn’t be prepared for college and careers? When you consider the slogan a bit more closely, however, it starts to make a little less sense.

First and most obviously, the American higher education system is staggeringly diverse, encompassing everything from for-profit trade schools to community colleges to state flagship institutions to the Ivy League. While it seems reasonable to assume that there is a baseline skills that all (or most) students should be expected to graduate from high school, a one-size-fits-all approach makes absolutely no sense when it comes to college admissions.

Does anyone seriously think that a student who wants to study accounting at a local community college and one who wants to study physics at MIT should come out of high school knowing the same things? Or that a student who wants to study communications through an online, for-profit college and a student who wants to study philosophy at Princeton should be expected to read at the same level? A student receiving straight A’s at one institution could easily need substantial remediation to even earn a passing grade at the other. Viewed this way, the definition of “college readiness” as “knowledge and skills in English and mathematics necessary to qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing post-secondary coursework without the need for remediation” is effectively meaningless.

Second, let’s consider the “career readiness” part. Perhaps this was less true when the slogan was originally coined (by the ACT…I think), but today it is more or less impossible to obtain even the lowest-level white collar position without a college diploma. Virtually anyone entering the job market immediately after high school will almost certainly be considered only for service jobs (flipping burgers, stocking shelves at Walmart) or manual labor. While these jobs do require basic literacy and numeracy skills, they are light years away from those required by even a relatively un-challenging college program. It makes no sense to group them with post-secondary education.

Third, the pairing of “college and career” is more than a little problematic. While there are obviously some skills that translate well in both the classroom and in the boardroom (writing clearly and grammatically, organizing one’s thoughts in a logical manner, considering multiple viewpoints), there are other ways in which the skills valued in the classroom (searching for complexity, “problematizing” seemingly straightforward ideas) are exactly the opposite of those usually prized in the working world. They are enormously valuable skills, but on their own merits. It really only makes sense to lump college and work together in this way if you are attempting to redefine college as quasi-trade school for the tech industry.

Like most people, though, I assumed that the “college” part was intended refer to traditional, four-year institutions. Then, while reading one of the white papers released by Ze’ev Wurman and Sandra Stotsky (one of the writers of the 1998 Massachusetts ELA standards, considered the most rigorous in the country, and one of only two members of the Common Core validation committee to refuse to sign off on the standards), I came across this edifying tidbit:

The clearest statement of the meaning of [college and career readiness] that we have found appears in the minutes of the March 23 meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Jason Zimba, a member of the mathematics draft-writing team who had been invited to speak to the Board, stated, in response to a query, that “the concept of college readiness is minimal and focuses on non- selective colleges.” Earlier, Cynthia Schmeiser, president and CEO of ACT’s Education Division, one of Common Core’s key partners, testified to a U.S. Senate Committee that college readiness was aimed at such post-secondary institutions as “two- or four-year colleges, trade schools, or technical schools.” These candid comments raise professional and ethical issues. The concept is apparently little more than a euphemism for “minimum competencies,” the concept that guided standards and tests in the 1980s, with little success in increasing the academic achievement of low-performing students

Moreover, it seems that this meaning for college readiness was intended only for low-achieving high school students who are to be encouraged to seek enrollment in non-selective post-secondary institutions. Despite its low academic goals and limited target, this meaning for college readiness was generalized as the academic goal for all students and offered to the public without explanation. (Stotsky and Wurman, “The Emperor’s New Clothes: National Assessments Based on Weak “College and Career Readiness Standards,” 2010.) 

Stotsky goes on to point out that not a single detail from the very explicit standards laid out in the 2003 report “Understanding University Success” — a report that included input from 400 faculty members from 20 institutions, including Harvard, MIT, and the University of Virginia — was included in the Common Core Standards.

In contrast, Common Core standards were primarily written by 24 people, many of whom were affiliated with the testing industry, and some of whom had no teaching experience whatsoever. As Mercedes Schneider points out, Jason Zimba, the lead writer of the math standards: 

…acknowledge[d] that ending with the Common Core in high school could preclude students from attending elite colleges. In many cases, the Core is not aligned with the expectations at the collegiate level. “If you want to take calculus your freshman year in college, you will need to take more mathematics than is in the Common Core.”

Likewise, I would add that analytical skills a tad more sophisticated than simply comparing and contrasting, or using evidence to support one’s arguments, are a prerequisite for doing any sort of serious university-level work in the humanities or social sciences. As is vocabulary beyond the level of synthesize and hypothesis.

Food for thought, the next time you hear/see Common Core described as a set of “more rigorous” (hah!) standards designed to prepare students for colleges and the workforce.” 

Cynthia Schmeiser, incidentally, now works for the College Board. It’s amazing how, when you do a little prodding (or, should I say, “delve deep,” to invoke another preferred euphemism), the same names keep cropping up over and over again

Some thoughts about why American math education stinks

In theory, at least, I should be the very last person to weigh in on this topic. As I usually joke, most of my students could tutor me in math. My mathematical education was mediocre in every way imaginable, and let’s not even talk about that 200+ point score gap between my SAT and Math and Verbal scores. With competent instruction, I probably could have become an excellent — or at least a decent — math student, but alas, that ship sailed many years ago.

So why on earth should anyone listen to me spout off about what ails math education? Well, because by this point, I know a fair amount about the functions and dysfunctions of the American educational system, about pedagogical trends, and about just how difficult good teaching really is. If you’re willing to hear me out, I’m going to start with an anecdote.

I occasionally receive emails from prospective test-prep authors (mostly math/science, incidentally) seeking advice. A few months ago, I got a message from someone looking to self-publish an ACT science book. In the course of his message, he mentioned that he couldn’t begin to understand my work because he trafficked in the world of logic and objectivity. Although it was undoubtedly unintentional, the implication was that my work was frilly and subjective, the academic equivalent of a pink cupcake.

It probably would have surprised him to learn that traditionally, grammar and rhetoric were grouped together with logic as areas of study. Until the nineteenth century, the boundary between the humanities and the sciences was quite fluid, the sciences being considered a form of “natural philosophy.” Although there are still some of areas where the two overlap in overt ways — music theory and math, for example, or philosophy and physics — they tend to be relatively esoteric. Current discussions typically pit humanities and sciences against one another or worse, contend that the humanities only have value insofar as they can be made to serve more pragmatic pursuits. (For an exceptionally heavy-handed example of this mentality, see Passage 4, Test 1 in the new SAT Official Guide.)

The reality, however, is that grammar and math actually have quite a bit in common, and the way I teach grammar probably has a lot more to with with what goes on (or should go on) in math class than what goes on English class. It’s not an exact analogy, of course, but consider that math and grammar share some essential characteristics. Both are formal, symbolic systems whose real-life applications are not always immediately obvious. Both are sequential and cumulative — if you don’t master basic terms and formulas and understand their applications, you are not really prepared to move on to the next level. And both can become very creative at a high level, but not without a thorough mastery of the basics.

If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have very naively said that training people to teach reading would be harder than training them to teach grammar. Reading, after all, is fairly subjective, and there are almost infinite ways for a student to misunderstand. As it turned out, I had things backwards. Because there are a fairly limited number of formal techniques that can be used to teach reading (focusing on the introduction and conclusion to determine the main point, using context clues, identifying transitions), there wasn’t a huge amount of wiggle room in terms of training people to teach it.

Grammar was a different story.

First, let me explain that I learned pretty much all of my grammar in foreign language class. Years of foreign language class, starting from when I was about seven through well after I graduated from college. Almost all of it was pretty traditional — pages and pages of exercises, progressing from the present tense to the imperfect subjunctive, from direct and indirect objects through relative pronouns. Although I have an excellent ear for languages, grammar did not come totally naturally to me. In fact, I got B’s in French for most of high school (albeit in an extremely accelerated class). But after covering the same concepts in more or less the same order in multiple classes, in multiple languages, over multiple years, there was pretty much no way I could not master them.

The way I teach, and the way I write my grammar books, very much reflects that experience. When I started teaching grammar, I simply mimicked what my teachers had taught me — teachers who were at worst merely competent and at best outstanding. Because I came from a foreign language background, my starting assumption was always that my students knew nothing, that every term had to be defined, and that I could not leave any step to be inferred. Since very few of my students had learned any grammar in school — and in the rare cases they had studied grammar, they usually had only the most fragmentary understanding of what they had learned — this approach proved highly effective.

When I started interviewing and training tutors, however, I was struck by a few things. First most tutors had a noticeable tendency to overcomplicate their explanations. They often attempted to cover multiple concepts simultaneously, using very fairly sophisticated terminology — and they didn’t stop to make sure the student truly understood all of the terminology they were using. They simply took for granted that the student had not only been exposed to but had also mastered the terminology they were using, even if that was not at all the case.

Now, in English, kids can still muddle along because, well, they speak the language (even if some of their writing is pretty hair-raising), but in math I suspect those types of oversights can be deadly. If a teacher is talking past their students, assuming that they’ve mastered concepts they should have mastered last year but didn’t, failing to define terms precisely and introducing new, more sophisticated concepts before the old ones have been fully assimilated, there’s pretty much no way for kids to figure things out on their own. Forget “deep understanding;” they won’t even get the basics.

That brings me to my next point, namely the false dichotomy between “rote learning” and “deep understanding.” I think most people would consider it common sense that lessons need to be calibrated to the level of the particular students, and that beginners usually need to have things explained in pretty simple ways. What’s somewhat less intuitive, and what often gets overlooked in debates about pedagogy, is that aiming for “deep understanding” too early on can be counterproductive because it often involves more unfamiliar terminology and concepts than students are prepared to handle. The strain on working memory is simply too great.

The initial goal, at least from my perspective, should be to give students tools that are simple to remember and that can actually be used. If an explanation of the underlying logic behind a rule happens to help students better grasp a rule, in such a way that they can apply it more effectively, then by all means the explanation should be provided. But if explanations are too confusing, they can do more harm than good. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes straight-up memorization is actually the best approach at first. Then, when the student is ready, progressively more nuanced versions of the concept can be introduced.

Usually, though, the issue isn’t explanation vs. no explanation but rather how in-depth the explanation should be. There are countless gradations between pure “rote” memorization and in-depth conceptual learning, and there is a very fine line between explaining a concept thoroughly and explaining it in a way that brings in extraneous, potentially confusing information. A good deal of teaching involves walking that line. Sometimes a little bit of the theoretical underpinnings can be introduced, and sometimes it makes sense to go more in-depth. It all depends on where students are starting from and what they hope to accomplish. If a teacher isn’t sensitive to that context, explanations can easily end up being more superficial or more complex than what a student actually requires. That’s a big part of what makes teaching an art as well as a science. More often than not, students won’t come out and tell you when they’re confused; teachers must be attuned to facial expressions and body language. If they miss those cues and blithely keeps on going… well, you’ve probably had that experience.

Moreover, concepts being taught must be considered in context of the subject as a whole: what (if anything) has been taught before, and what must the student absolutely master at this point in order to move to the next level somewhere down the line? If a curriculum isn’t sequenced coherently, students end up with gaps and eventually hit a wall. 

Likewise, if a teacher doesn’t know enough about the subject to understand where the particular concept they are teaching fits in, they are unlikely to be capable of fully preparing students for the next level. I think it’s fair to assume that plenty of elementary school — and even plenty of high school — math teachers don’t have a particularly strong grounding in the subject as a whole. It then stands to reason that they can’t teach with an eye toward what might be required a year down the line, never mind five years down the line.

On the flip side, of course, some teachers are so naturally gifted in a subject, or take so much of their knowledge for granted, that they simply can’t imagine the subject from the perspective of a novice or figure out how to explain things that seem so obvious to them (or worse, don’t even realize that things need explaining). That was my 10th grade math class, and thinking about it still makes me shudder.

The other, related, issue I see has to do with the way in which both traditional and progressive forms of teaching are misapplied.

In traditional teaching, a general concept is presented, after which students work through a number examples to see it in action. This model has taken a lot of flack over the last century, some of it merited and most of it based on various types of distortion, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s often applied in a manner that leaves much to be desired. I’ve noticed that American teachers tend to overestimate students’ ability to infer the application of rules to complex/sophisticated situations after those rules are presented in a relatively superficial way. For example, subject-verb agreement can theoretically be covered in about five seconds: singular subjects take singular verbs, while plural subjects take plural verbs. Easy, right? In theory, perhaps.

In reality, many students must learn about gerunds, prepositions and prepositional phrases, non-essential clauses, compound subjects, etc. in order to answer the full range of SAT subject-verb agreement questions. You cannot skip parts — even seemingly obvious ones — and leave beginning students to figure out the rest; every step must be mapped out. Concepts must be continually reinforced and slowly built upon so that new concepts, as well as their relationships to other concepts, are gradually introduced and then explored in progressively more complex ways.

Furthermore, each concept must be drilled until it has been mastered; simply reiterating the logic behind a concept is not enough. I’ve been told that this is how math gets taught in most Asian countries, which not coincidentally tend to have the highest math scores. Based on the way I’ve seen grammar get taught, I strongly suspect this isn’t happening in American classrooms. (Also, American pedagogy is addicted to incoherence, confusing it with freedom and creativity; explicit, clearly sequenced lessons would be anathema, even if teachers were given leeway in implementing the specifics.)

An equal if not bigger problem results from the other extreme. In a progressive model, students are given a series of problems or examples and asked to figure out the general concept. While this approach has the potential to be useful, if done in a moderate and controlled way, it can lead to serious confusion if 1) students have insufficient background knowledge to figure out whatever it is that they’re supposed to be figuring out; or 2) the teacher does not actually step in at some point and explain things clearly. (For the record, I’m talking about a run-of-the-mill public high school math class, not a seminar at Exeter.)

I’ve seen tutors try to build lessons around students’ prior knowledge or intuitive understanding of a concept, when in fact those things were so spotty they provided virtually no basis for understanding. What they clearly perceived as guiding intended to “empower” the student was actually going nowhere. Far from realizing that, though, they seized on any scrap of understanding as evidence that their approach was working. Never mind that there was very little the student could apply in any meaningful way. Once again, that approach creates enough problems in English, but native speakers will still be able to utter more or less grammatically acceptable utterances regardless of whether they can distinguish between the present perfect and the past perfect. In math, the consequences are likely to be a lot more dire.

Inverse relationships

I’ve come up with a formula

The amount of time a curriculum devotes to teaching critical thinking is inversely proportional to the actual critical thinking skills that the students acquire.

Think of it this way:

Critical thinking skills can only develop as the result of accumulated subject-specific knowledge, not as the result of learning “critical thinking” strategies in the abstract.

The more time students spend learning formal processes (e.g. identifying the main point) designed to teach them “critical thinking” skills in the abstract, the less time they spend obtaining subject-specific knowledge (e.g. biology, history).

Thus, the more time students spend learning learning formal processes designed to teach them critical thinking skills, the less likely they are to acquire the very knowledge that would allow them to think critically.

Or to put it in mathematical terms, where CT is defined as actual critical thinking ability and ct is defined as abstract, formal processes designed to promote “critical thinking:”

CT ? 1/ct

The Knowledge Deficit

The Knowledge Deficit

So I finally got around to reading The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch’s screed against the American educational establishment. I didn’t actually realize that the book was controversial until I mentioned it to a couple of people. I can’t, however, say that I’m surprised it elicited the reaction it did when it was first published; it contradicts pretty much all the received wisdom about what constitutes effective education in the United States, and it does so very, very bluntly. I can’t figure out how it didn’t get on my radar sooner.

Unknown

 

Memorization is a component of critical thinking, not its opposite

Education is in the news a lot these days. With the increasing reliance on standardized testing at all grade levels and the implementation of Common Core standards, there’s suddenly a lot of concern about where American schools are headed; and as someone with a significant interest in educational issues, I pay a lot of attention to what people are saying. Reading through education articles and the accompanying comments, many of which bemoan the lack of I’m struck by the extent to which ideas about education have become polarized: on one side, joyless, dry, rote learning, devoid of imagination or interest, with no other end than the thoughtless regurgitation of facts; on the other side, a sort of kumbaya, free-to-be-you-and-me utopia, where learning is always an imaginative and exciting process with no wrong answers or unpleasantness.

To be fair, a lot of the idealizing that goes on is understandable backlash against the rise of standardized tests to judge, well, just about everything. If education has been reduced to learning how to fill in little bubbles on a scantron sheet, it’s natural to want to run screaming as far as possible in the other direction from that sort of drudgery and to make learning fun. To be clear: although I obviously have a stake in the world of standardized tests and believe that well-constructed exams (like the SAT) are useful when used thoughtfully and sparingly, I’m as disturbed as most other people about their sudden ubiquity.

Real education is most certainly not about learning to fill in little bubbles, and at its best, it can be wonderful and stimulating and engaging. But can be wonderful and stimulating is not the same thing as must never be boring or involve any sort of protracted struggle, and there seems to be a camp that conflates the two. Some things are hard; that’s called life. As someone who spends a lot of time teaching students fundamentals that they haven’t acquired in school, I find just as disturbing — and, frankly, bizarre — the idea that those “boring” fundamentals can simply be bypassed in favor of “higher level critical thinking skills.” Yet that idea seems to be have taken root rather tenaciously.

I’d like to suggest that the problem of rote learning vs. critical thinking is actually a false dichotomy. Or rather, there are two types of rote learning, and it’s necessary to distinguish between them: on one hand, there’s the type of rote learning that exists as an end in itself. The point of this type of education is simply to be able to spit back names and dates and facts without any understanding of how they connect or what their larger significance in the world might be. When Americans rail against rote learning, this is what they tend to be thinking of. 

On the other hand, there is also a type of education that views rote learning as a means to an end — one that recognizes that factual knowledge is actually the basis for higher level thinking. This type of rote knowledge is also known as “inflexible knowledge.” Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written extensively about the problem with treating critical thinking as something that can be taught in the abstract.

As Willingham says:

People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

Willingham’s research flies in the face of much of the educational status quo. One belief currently rampant is that students no longer need to memorize factual information because technology has made that information available to them at the click of a button. Because they no longer have to “waste” brainpower memorizing, or so the line of thinking goes, their minds will be freed up for “higher level critical thinking.” The problem with this view is that it overlooks the fact that critical thinking emerges from the scaffolding provided by rote knowledge; it can’t be divorced from it. When you know facts and dates and concepts by heart, it becomes much easier to see the relationships between them. It doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically see the relationships between them (that’s the point of education), but you will have a stronger basis for doing so.

Put otherwise, if you’re writing a history paper about and have to stop every five seconds and look something up on Wikipedia, your mind will be so consumed with simply trying to process the literal information that you’ll have nothing left over to actually analyze it in any meaningful way. If, on the other hand, you already know the key facts and chronologies and players, you’ll find it much easier to actually say something about why they developed the way they did.

It’s easy to spout off about the beauty of knowledge and potential of technology, but anyone who has ever watched a sixteen year-old stare glassy-eyed at a computer screen with ten different tabs up, then pull up yet another page and google a term repeatedly, pausing only to glance at the first couple of hits before typing in a slightly different version and beginning the whole process again, might start to wonder if educators don’t maybe have things a little bit backwards.

Looking up a couple of pieces of minutiae is one thing, and the Internet is an invaluable tool for someone who needs to do only that, but having to google virtually every basic fact leaves no mental room to do anything with those facts.

Perhaps I’m overlooking something, but it always struck me a somewhat obvious that you don’t acquire higher-level skills without mastering lower-level skills first. If you skip over the fundamentals, you might stagger along looking like you know what you’re doing for a while, but sooner or later, you’re going to crash.

I don’t think most Americans would argue with that idea when it comes to, say, sports or music. They would consider it basic common sense that top athletes don’t simply jump into a high level of competition after a little bit of haphazard training. If they’re not ready, they’ll get injured badly. Likewise, a musician who hasn’t mastered basic scales isn’t usually encourage to schedule her solo debut. It’s understood that years of practice and repetition are required, some of which is “fun” and much of which is not, and that fundamental skills must be mastered before more advanced ones are introduced.

Yet that is more or less the equivalent of what an awful lot of people seem to expect high school student to be able to accomplish academically. Not only is it unrealistic to ask high school students to write papers showing evidence of complex, critical, “high-level” thinking without giving them the grammatical, rhetorical, analytical, literary, historical, and cultural knowledge (among other things) to actually perform that kind of analysis, but it’s downright delusional.

As someone who’s watched lots and lots of sixteen year-olds torture themselves trying to complete college-level assignments when they haven’t yet fully mastered things like transitions or topic sentences or how to analyze quotations, I think I’ve earned the right to say that there’s something very wrong with a system that refuses to explicitly teach skills for fear of destroying students’ creativity, then pushes them to the brink of a nervous breakdown by demanding that they complete work far beyond what their skills allow.

Listening to ed-school grads rhapsodize about the joys of learning, you have to wonder whether they’ve actually ever seen students at home, sobbing hysterically and making their parents nuts as they try to eek out a couple of semi-coherent paragraphs. My guess would be that they haven’t. (For the record, I drove myself crazy over pretty much every English paper I wrote in high school. When someone finally sat me down and taught me the conventions of the genre — in college — I was astonished that it had been so easy all along, then furious that no one had bothered to explain things that simply before.)

So if teachers aren’t teaching the basics well or in a manner that engages students’ interest, it simply means that those basics need to be taught better — not that they can or should be discarded as irrelevant. A terrible teacher can massacre even the most fascinating subject, and an exceptional teacher can teach the basics clearly and directly in a highly engaging manner. From what I’ve seen, students are incredibly grateful when the latter occurs. They end up with a real sense of accomplishment rather than the feeling that they’re grasping a straws.

I do, by the way, acknowledge that plenty of high schools offer little in the way of a challenge to very bright and motivated students — but that by itself doesn’t mean that the students are actually ready for college level work, simply that the level of the high school curriculum needs to be raised. If students who are high-achieving by the standards of their local environments but who actually still lack basic knowledge are placed in so-called “early college” classes, those classes will never get beyond a certain level, regardless of how catchy their titles are or how esoteric their subject matter is.

Students who are missing basic cultural reference points such as Auschwitz (never mind Hannah Arendt) are not, to put it bluntly, going to be able to discuss totalitarianism at anything approaching a college level. That’s not to say they won’t learn something from such a discussion, but their ability to engage in advanced “critical thinking” is going to be seriously compromised.

Given expert teachers and a well-constructed curriculum, there is a way to make high school-level work both challenging and age-appropriate; the two are not mutually exclusive. The real problem is a serious lack of teachers who are experts in their fields and a system that fails to give the teacher who are experts the necessary support.

Everyone’s looking for a quick fix, and no one wants to put their money where their mouth is — administrators occasionally pay lip service to the importance of bringing in the high-quality teachers but do nothing to make the profession more attractive; instead, they turn around and blame the teachers for everything their students fail to achieve. Then they insist that teachers facilitate high level critical thinking while simultaneously discouraging them from reinforcing the kind of fundamentals that are necessary for critical thinking to occur. It’s positively schizophrenic. And insisting that high school students be assigned work above their heads and then given wildly inflated grades so the grownups can pat themselves on the back is not a real solution.

One math tutor I know estimates that schools should be teaching somewhere around a third of the material they currently attempt to cover, but focusing on mastery rather than superficial knowledge. That seems pretty accurate to me. I think that in all the hysteria over accelerating classes to make sure that American students are internationally competitive, schools (administrators) have lost sight of how much information students can reasonably be asked to digest and what sort of building blocks must be already in place to ensure that they’re capable of digesting it.

The current system produces classes that appear advanced but that students aren’t actually retaining anything from. They memorize for the test and then forget because it’s the only way they can get through school; but since the information never makes it into their long-term memories, they never get to the point where they can combine it with other knowledge and jump to the next level.

Let me give you an example: over the last few years, I’ve tutored a number of AP French students at a highly selective New York City public school. Pre-AP classes aren’t tracked, so there’s no accelerated option in the lower levels. By the time students show up in AP, they’ve studied four or five tenses and learned them relatively well, but they haven’t done a lot of reading, and there’s still an enormous amount of grammar that they haven’t been exposed to.

When they get to AP, a lot of them find themselves in over their heads. They have to master the rest of the major tenses (among other things) in five or six or months, read a lot of authentic French, and write full essays in French, complete with theses and counterarguments. They have to cram so much knowledge in so fast that there’s simply no way they can retain it past each test.

Then, when they’re confronted with a situation that requires them to integrate all their knowledge, they freeze. The material looks vaguely familiar, but they still sit there for five minutes, trying to remember the endings for the conditional. Their class sometimes needs two full periods to complete tests because they simply can’t pull information together quickly enough. Five years ago, that was unheard of, but it’s happening all the time now. And there’s nothing their teacher can do about it because of the way the curriculum is structured. She knows they need more time the learn the information, but if she wants them to cover everything on the AP exam, she has to keep pushing through.

When I tell my students that I spent three years covering the subjunctive in high school, learning a different part each year, they’re floored — and jealous. No one has ever given them three years to learn anything for an AP exam.

Trying to come up with a conclusion to this post, I find myself stuck. I’m not particularly optimistic about the implementation of the Common Core, and I don’t have any pat advice to offer. (Optimism is not my forte. Sorry if you were looking for something uplifting.) My only hope is that at some point people will come to their senses and notice that an excessive emphasis on either free-form, pie-in-the-sky creativity or stultifying, sloppily written standardized testing does not an educational system make. But I’m guessing that things will have to get worse before before there’s even a chance that they’ll get better. As for me, I’ll just keep calling it like I see it.