Educating for Democracy: High School Graduation Rates and Critical Thinking

The discrepancies between rising graduation rates and declining thinking skills are indications that there is something profoundly wrong with the education-evaluation system, which is supposed to measure achievement but can be manipulated to create a false impression of success.
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President Obama's speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Friday, Jan. 9, seemed to represent a serious effort to give greater opportunity to high school graduates to attend college even if they lack the funds. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The proposal ... is aimed at addressing Americans who look to a college degree as a ticket to the middle class but believe they cannot afford one. At the same time, business leaders are deeply concerned with a skills gap that has left hundreds of thousands of jobs unfilled across the country for lack of qualified workers.

If one were to rely on statistics alone, there should be no problem in getting these jobs filled by students who were educated in our schools. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, 81 percent nationally, although African-American students lag behind at 68 percent, and Latinos falls somewhere in between at 76 percent. But in view of the "skills gap" reported by business leaders, I am somewhat skeptical about these numbers, as encouraging as they appear to be, because those graduates who then attend college often need remedial classes in order to succeed in completing college requirements.

A 2010 report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board, "Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy," observed:

Every year in the United States, nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits. This gap between college eligibility and college readiness has attracted much attention in the last decade, yet it persists unabated. While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses.

A more recent study estimated the annual cost of college-level remedial help to students, colleges and taxpayers at close to $7 billion, and another added that in four-year colleges about 20 percent of freshmen students take remedial classes.

The problem has many causes, but it seems to me that one of the explanations educators have discovered to account for their students' lack of preparedness in dealing with higher education is the deficit of one skill that has become the mantra of educators, especially in the last 15 years: "critical thinking." Such intellectual tools as analyzing, conceptualizing, defining, examining, inferring, listening, questioning, and reasoning are employed actively by students to enable them -- to put it in a more old-fashioned way -- "to learn how to learn."

An example of an employer who sees these critical-thinking skills lacking in many of the college-educated candidates who apply for jobs in his company is David Boyes, who runs a technology consulting firm called Sine Nomine Associates. ("Sine Nomine" Latin for "Without a Name.") According to Amy Scott in her Marketplace article "What do employers really want from college grads?":

The company of about 20 full time employees is based in Ashburn, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. It does everything from data-center design to strategic planning for businesses like IBM and Cisco.

We find that a lot of people, and not just new college grads, people that are coming from a career, aren't getting that skill set. How you put an idea forward, and how do you support it, how do you build it, how do you put the facts behind it? All of those things are really critical.

Scott observes:

Boyes sounds like a lot of the employers who responded to our survey. More than half of them said they have trouble finding qualified people for job openings. They said recent grads too often don't know how to communicate effectively. And they have trouble adapting, problem solving and making decisions -- things employers say they should have learned in college.

I find it ironic that the very skills that prospective employers look for in their candidates for jobs are the ones least developed in the many public schools that are being driven by standardized tests. I would also question the validity of the recent improvement of graduation rates given the compulsion of public-school teachers to "produce" higher numbers in their classrooms or face the consequences of a loss of their jobs. In past blog posts I have referred to Campbell's law, which states, "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor," but, unfortunately, the wisdom that it imparts seems to be lost on such "education reformers" as Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

I have consistently maintained that not everyone is suited to making the most of a college education as "a ticket to the middle class," but that does not mean that those who do not get a college degree should be disqualified from enjoying at least some measure of economic security. But that is a systemic problem that is masked by the assumption that everyone has an "equal opportunity" to enjoy a middle-class life. That simply isn't so, and the "skills gap" illustrates it.

The discrepancies between rising graduation rates and declining thinking skills are indications that there is something profoundly wrong with the education-evaluation system, which is supposed to measure achievement but can be manipulated to create a false impression of success. Serious educators can only hope that the public will finally realize that the emperor has no clothes. Public education is in need of serious self-examination before the entire system becomes a fraud disguised by statistics.

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