What Do We Expect High School Students to Know? Part 1

January 12, 2011

Into my Zimbra in-box yesterday comes a note from Stewart Reed (EC ’04) addressed to a couple of us on Earlham Faculty.  The salutation, which brings a smile immediately is “Hello Wise Professors.”  He’s seeking assistance: he teaches high school (something many, many Earlhamites do), and he wants to know what we at a college expect students to know when they arrive at college.  Here’s how he puts it.

“I spend my days teaching high school Social Studies and trying to convince kids in Oregon to look at going to college in Richmond, Indiana 😉  I am currently on a small committee at Southridge High School working on college readiness issues. We are working on ways to help our students develop essential skills that they will need for the college classroom. I know you are all busy, but when you get a moment, would you mind answering the following questions? I think it will help all of us in the long run, and hopefully help us prepare our students for your classrooms!

1. What key skills are you looking for in your students?

2. What are your expectations of incoming students in terms of research ability?

3. What do you see as the biggest academic weaknesses in your incoming students? Strengths?

4. What skills would you like high school teachers to work on more in order to prepare students for a college classroom?”

These questions sustain the smile on my face:  they are huge, straightforward, clear questions — just the sort of questions I would expect someone who graduated from Earlham (or anywhere else) to be asking at work.  What are we doing here?  What are our goals?  What do others expect of us?

These questions also occasion pain, because I know how poorly we are doing at providing answers to them.  I don’t especially mean “we at Earlham,” I mean “we in higher education,” but we aren’t exactly putting a strong shoulder to the wheel to answer Stewart’s questions when we say this on our website:

“Earlham expects applicants to have completed at least 15 academic high school units or the equivalent, four in English, three in mathematics, and two or more in a second language, in science, and in history or social studies. Experience in the area of studio or performing arts is very desirable. If you have held a summer job or have served your community, we are eager to hear about these experiences. Other experiences that tend to enhance your application and show you to be a good fit with Earlham include participation in a student leadership position, internships, foreign exchange programs, summer studies and athletics.”

There’s no substance there; we aren’t communicating anything about what we expect students to know or to be able to do.  Surely we can do better.

More than fifteen years ago, a group of Academic Deans in Pennsylvania did say something clearer.  They wrote a brochure called “What We Expect: A Statement on Preparing for College.”  It still is very much worth reading.  The Deans were from colleges that were members of The Commonwealth Partnership, a now defunct organization that my wife (Ellen Trout Bennett) served as Executive Director.  If you look at the list of the Deans, you’ll see that many of them went on to distinguished presidencies.

It is a miracle of the internet that I can still find this statement.  It shouldn’t be so hard for the Stewart Reeds of this world to find out “what we expect.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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