Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What does College Ready really MEAN?

The phrase "college ready" is being bandied about in education circles ad nauseum (another thing for which we can thank Mr and Mrs Bill Gates) and after a conversation with my daughter last night I've been doing a lot of thinking about what this really means for our kids. My daughter started her senior year today, and we were having another discussion last night about what classes she was taking and for various reasons got onto the subject of Calculus vs. Statistics. She told me that the colleges she wants to go to wouldn't look at her if she doesn't take Calculus.

This is my second child, and I've sat through enough of these admissions talks now to know what college admissions officers are saying. And I have to question some of the values that I see being beaten into our kids' heads in these college admissions sessions. For example, if I have to sit in another admissions session saying that they want kids who have held leadership positions, I might well stand up and scream, "HOW THE HELL ARE ALL OF THESE KIDS SUPPOSED TO HOLD LEADERSHIP POSITIONS? THERE AREN'T ENOUGH CLUBS IN ALL THE SCHOOLS FOR EVERY SINGLE KID TO BE A LEADER?" And what message is that giving kids? That NOT being the CEO is failure? Really? There are plenty of CEOS whose tenure could be viewed as a failure (*cough* Steve Ballmer *cough*). One can be a leader in so many different ways, without holding an official title.

But it's this prescribed view of what kids need to take in order to be college ready that makes me the most crazy. I understand the focus on a rigorous curriculum. I understand that they should be challenging themselves. But calculus vs statistics? Really?

I didn't take calculus in HS or college. It's not that I'm not good with numbers. I got an A+ in Accounting in college, and in my work life created and analyzed budgets for a multimillion pound business.

Financial numbers like balance sheets and income statements make sense to me. They're like putting together pieces of a puzzle. I've told both my kids that no matter what they want to do in life, they should take a basic accounting class, because they need to be able to understand how to read financial statements.

When I got to business school, I had to take calculus as a pass/fail prerequisite. It's the only class I've almost failed in my entire life. I don't know if it was the professor or my brain, but I couldn't wrap my head around the concepts. I tried so hard to understand. I tried to do it by understanding the concepts. I tried to do it by rote memorization of formulas. I passed, but barely. It traumatized me so much that for almost a decade after I got my MBA in Finance, I would wake up in a cold sweat, having dreamed that I'd failed calculus, and I'd actually have to go down to the study and look at my framed diploma to make sure it was still there.

It traumatized me so much I was worried about taking statistics, assuming that I was total dunce. But I did fine in statistics. Statistics made total sense to me.

In my working life since taking calculus, I have never once had to use it. Not when I worked in finance, not as the financial director of a business, not in my current fields of endeavor.In my life since taking statistics, I use that knowledge all the time. Having a working knowledge of statistics enables me to understand how they are being used or misused in political discourse. I can't help wondering - why do colleges value that less than calculus for an educated person?

Again, I wonder what does "college ready" really mean? Who is defining it? And what is the end game? What kind of life is this "college readiness" making kids ready FOR?

As parents we need to ask these questions of our schools, our elected representatives, our government - and we must do it loudly. It matters, for our children, and for the future of this country.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah ~ your piece brought back all the horror of my daughter's senior year (just a week into it, 9/11 happened). And it was also the year she got braces (I know, don't ask). Anyway, my daughter was an honor's student and to be 'college ready,' she took calculus that year and had the same experience you had. She failed her final, but sensing the teacher realized these kids were traumatized, she gratefully passed the class. I hated all the pressure that we both felt that year (single mom, only child syndrome ;), so I totally agree with you. My daughter went on to major in theater, switched to social work, and is getting her MSW right now. I fear this so-called 'travesty' of the US lagging behind other countries has wreaked havoc with what really matters for our kids...being kind and loving human beings.