Prepared for What? The Future for Graduates

What’s the next step? That’s the first question of practically all phases of one’s life. First grade prepares for second, elementary for middle, high school for college, college for a job (or further college), a job for another job, a job for retirement — the cycle continues onward. In an effort to speed up this process, high schools around the United States (and outward) continually open “early-college” high schools. The goal of these institutions are to get a jump start on college credits, typically for free, and make students more competitive upon graduation.

College-ready schools make an assumption that they are actually preparing students for college — however — is this an accurate sentiment? Moreover, what is the danger of always preparing people for the “next thing” without ever focusing on the now? It’s admittedly an easy cop-out for teachers: “you’ll use this when you’re in college/high school/middle school” — but how often does this ring true? Certainly, having college credits on one’s resume as well as being more akin to college-style classrooms will make one more familiar with a college environment, as well as more competitive in a traditional sense, however, students are missing valuable life skills.

A typical college class is taught in the most traditional sense possible: many lectures, followed by quizzes or a midterm, perhaps a meaningless paper, then a final. Students are becoming the ultimate compulsive being — one that can listen, follow directions, and regurgitate at will. Missed during this conversation are life skills that can be applied to any situation — college or not:

  • Understanding and learning from failure.
  • Recognizing there’s more to learning than a grade.
  • Finding passions and a purpose in life (rather than what a college resume “requires.”)
  • Reading for pleasure.
  • Practicing mindfulness and relaxing.
  • Critically thinking about the world.
  • Regulating self-directed behavior.
  • Being able to work as a team and overcome problems.
  • Building lasting relationships.
  • Reflecting on the learning process for authentic improvement.

Each of these skills is something learned in the moment. They’re not looking for a next step or checking off another aspect of a generic college admissions paper. The ACT/SAT are not valid measures of one’s skills but rather a test of basic logical reasoning — something one can pay to improve in a short period of time through test taking strategies. Real learning is something that is fostered and grown over long periods in authentic communities.

We need to slow down and do less in schools. This is not at the expense of learning — in fact, quite the opposite! We’re not machines, and we don’t learn like them. People need ample amounts of time to critically think about the world. Our classrooms look more like the utopian Ford brainwashing centers of Brave New World than ever.

In our efforts to do what’s best for children, we often look at how we can best situate students in the system without understanding why we’re doing it. Is early college actually making our graduates better equipped for life? Are they going to be more successful students? Students are rushed into life-altering decisions because it’s a track that’s been laid out to them. It’s an assumed part of our culture that college is required and college means that you’ll get a job. However, the majority of people exiting college are not receiving one. As of 2017, 43% of college graduates work in a field not requiring their expertise.

Every year, ribbon cutting ceremonies laud schools that push students quicker and quicker down a college pathways. Graduation programs highlight how many college coursework hours their students have received and the giant list of (oftentimes unknown) colleges their students attend. However, if near the majority of them aren’t actually successful afterwards — why does it matter?

Presumably, these college graduates are unsuccessful for one of three reasons:

  1. They were never that passionate about what they studied to begin with. Education is like a rollercoaster: buckle in and you’re along for the ride — no matter what. Students have little time to think about what theywant to do. Their vision of success is achieving on that track as much as possible — with bonus points for moving faster than expected. Without any time spent in the now, they’re faced with a definition of success that’s embedded in our culture — typically aiming for “high profile careers” or what they’ve read are jobs in-demand. As a result, they’re not interested nor pursue much beyond their education.
  2. They missed out on valuable soft-skills to make them attractive to employers. Businesses don’t just want people that obey every command — we have robots for that! Instead, they want people that innovate — that can think creatively, inspire their coworkers, and always figure out the next step for themselves. College classrooms (and many high/middle ones) almost entirely focus on regurgitating facts. Without these skills, graduates aren’t functional in seeking or performing in a career.
  3. The “real world” is incredibly competitive. There’s nothing noteworthy about someone who graduates from college at eighteen years old with a 4.0 GPA when in competition with someone with real-world experience. There are so many students being processed through fields with presumed employment without hands-on experiences (in STEM especially). If STEM fields have so many job openings, how have they not been filled yet? The answer, of course, is that they’re not able to find the correct people to fill the job.

Ironically, an early-college school is doing the exact opposite of preparing someone for learning. Instead, they’re preparing students for roboticism. Place AI (such as IBM’s Watson) in an AP class or GED community college course and it watch it pass in flying colors (in minutes, nonetheless). This charge should ignite educators around the world: we’re doing a disservice to our children and communities that don’t understand that the track laid out for them is riddled with inaccuracies and false claims. Students are willing to “bite the bullet” and sit through draining course over course to achieve a insurmountable amount of debt without ever contemplating what makes them happy. Why are schools not focusing more on the individual’s needs and desires, instead opting for how many graduation credits they can achieve?

Case in point is the Advanced Placement Program in the United States. AP teachers are given a hefty amount of content to teach in a short period of time to prepare students for a content-driven final exam which determines their awarding of college credit. AP teachers lament how little time they have to focus on their passions or stop and relax. As someone who has taught, as well as been taught, AP courses, I would assume most recognize how low retention is. Classrooms are meant to be learning communities where students feel welcomed, grow as an individual, and find sparks to ignite their curiosity. This is an almost laughable statement in preparatory schools.

Of course, all this is null and void if colleges have baseline requirements. There’s no denying that going to college can have drastic, life-changing outcomes for one’s monetary and personal success. So, if one decides to go to college — wouldn’t turning away from their requirements be counterintuitive? Colleges tend to all search for the same checkmarks:

  • A student’s class rank and GPA, which often encourages an incredibly competitive nature, statements such as, “is this going to be on the test?”, and other worrisome behavior for real learning.
  • Volunteer hours, which is more attuned to “forced volunteerism” — students find ways to obtain hours however possible, with little intent on actually helping others or reaching out to form lasting relationships.
  • Clubs and awards, which like volunteer hours, prompts many students to do things they’re not interested in with hopes of getting to the next step.

Real-world experience is valuable to colleges, but undoubtedly it is more difficult for schools to offer passion-driven internships and experiences to every single student. Typically, the easy way out is utilized by school districts.

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Therefore, this begs the question: is it our job to meet this criteria or to do what we know is best? Is it even a binary situation? Can one balance a child’s wellbeing while still offering a rigorous college preparatory environment? Although we can enact small changes to make classrooms more welcoming, the test-focal nature of these schools make it incredibly difficult to make lasting effects.

Second, we must ask: is it fair to children and parents to make these claims? Without early college experiences, students are not as competitive and are at a disadvantage. There’s extra debt, less credits, and less focus on a resume and introductory letter. It’s worrisome that this system is so controlling. One can’t push to change it because it’s so ingrained in culture that one assumes that this outweighs happiness, skill building, creativity, growth, and mindfulness.

Is it even fair to base saving money and affording a future opportunity to sacrifice real learning? Many college-prep environments tend to be in inner-city neighborhoods, where many are first-generation college-seekers. These schools are immensely praised for offering new opportunities and making outcomes that would be nigh-impossible before. However, you’ll often find indoctrination-levels of rules, policies, and content memorization in those halls.

So, how can teachers begin to challenge this narrative? There are solutions.

First, not all colleges care about standardized testing or college credits.Fairtest.org offers a list of over 1000 schools who don’t emphasize test scores, as well as various resources to counteract the narrative that the ACT/SAT are accurate measures of future success. Furthermore, many Ivy League schools are deemphasizing the use of scores. Although they still consider testing important, there’s much more attention paid to portfolios and real-world experience. As MIT’s admissions page explains, “you shouldn’t stress out too much about your scores, because we admit people, not numbers.”

Second, preparing students for soft skills: empathy, creativity, leadership, collaboration is preparing students for the future. Just because something isn’t tested doesn’t mean it’s not important. The things that can’t be measured are why they’re important. So many teachers move away from engaging opportunities in their classroom out of fear of the system’s backlash. If this is the common mantra, the system will succeed — continuing a cycle that is only getting worse.

Third, banding together to change the narrative, educate all, and create new learning experiences. Educators went into teaching because they care about kids. Fantastic pay and short hours were definitely not a deciding factor. The more people talk to others and become activists for real, progressive education — the more others will join in. Parents and students need to be educated as well: teach them the history of education, have real discussions over college, narrow in on what “grades” really are, talk about standardized testing. Reading and discussing on social media isn’t enough — the community needs you!