Breaking Through the “Chain of Blame:” Perceived Gaps in High School Preparation for College Composition Part I: Teacher Preparation

The first time I taught ninth grade, I remember feeling shocked at how little prepared I found my students for the high school classroom. I put a sentence up on the board and asked my students to find and label the nouns and verbs. They looked at me quizzically. One student tentatively raised her hand to answer. At this point, my heart hit the floor and I remember thinking, “What did they teach these children in middle school?”

Unfortunately, this scenario occurs quite frequently in the field of education, ranging from elementary school up through college. We all catch ourselves in the teachers’ lounge, lamenting that the teachers who came before us taught our students ‘nothing,’ and feeling angry at how much extra work we will need to put in before our students are even prepared to start at the basic levels of our curricula. Jeff Hoyt, co-author of “High School Preparation, Placement Testing, and College Remediation,” refers to this inevitable scenario as “[t]he ‘chain of blame’” which “ . . . describes how ‘universities blame the high schools, the high schools blame the middle schools, and the middle schools blame the elementary schools for poor [student] preparation’” (26). Like all teachers K-12, college composition professors have their share of complaints concerning their students’ preparation.

But are the professors misplacing the blame upon high school teachers? If high school teachers expose their students to the skills required for the collegiate level, where does this perceived gap of preparation come from? Research within the field suggests that although a large percentage of high school teachers are concerned about/attempting to prepare their students for college and beyond, several constraints keep them from doing more than preparing students for the hurdles that they will face to get into college. What high school teachers think they prepare students for and what they actually prepare students for are quite different. The three main causes for this discrepancy in student preparation are pre-service teacher preparation, teacher feedback on student writing, and of course, a standardized testing based curricula.

Today we shall discuss part one of this issue: teacher preparation.

Experts in the field of composition cite teacher preparation as one factor in the existence of the gap. Adolescent education degree seekers are typically required to major in both their content/subject area along with their education degree. Most colleges and universities hold students training to become teachers to rigorous standards in terms of their GPA and behavior expectations while completing their undergraduate degrees. Every state requires teachers to take several rigorous certification examinations to prove their knowledge of both content and teaching pedagogy. Additionally, many states now require teachers to continue their education within a specified time span after graduating from college—either completing a Masters degree or at the very least, continuing to take relevant education courses to maintain their certification. Teachers thusly appear as prepared as one could possibly be—I often joked with friends that I had the same amount of education as a lawyer but earned a third of the salary. So how can teacher preparation be a part of the problem?

The amount of preparation pre-service teachers receive is not the issue, nor is the quality of their education. The problem stems simply from the type of preparation secondary English teachers receive. As Donald Murray writes in his essay, “Teaching Writing as Process not Product,” “Most of us are trained as English teachers by studying a product: writing. Our critical skills are honed by examining literature, which is finished writing; language as it has been used by authors. And then, fully trained in autopsy, we go out and are assigned to teach our students to write, to make language live (3).”

In terms of their English content-based courses, the vast majority of classes pre-service teachers take are literature based. Very few take any form of a composition theory/pedagogy class in their entire undergraduate experience. They leave college as experts in literature—not in composition. Since you teach what you know, English teachers focus most of their attention on literary study. Although the curriculum contains other components, such as grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills, most of these will blend with the literature. The fact that the majority of the writing skills taught stem from literature is no surprise considering the background and training teachers had as writers themselves. It also seems unsurprising that college professors will perceive their students as unprepared writers; very few students will become literature majors, and otherwise will not need to write many literary analysis papers. As Cheryl Beil reports in “Understanding the Gap Between High School and College Writing,” a study she conducted regarding student preparedness in first year composition, students did not receive the exposure to the types of writing they would utilize most often in college. Out of ten different forms of writing assignments, “Only three types of writing assignments had been required at least monthly; literary analysis in which students investigated themes, symbols, or other literary devices; analytical essays; and lab reports. Less than half of the students had been assigned a research paper on a monthly basis” (6). Obviously, students spent the majority of their high school English experience writing literary analyses, which again, will not be the most useful form of writing to have as they enter college. As a result, students will lack the necessary foundations to generate the research papers many of their college courses will require—including college composition. Students would benefit more from exposure to wider array of writing—especially experience with research methodologies and various methods of organization.

Thus, the “chain of blame” has false assumptions; first, that high school teachers are not prepared for their jobs (they are overly prepared to teach literature, and vastly underprepared to teach writing). Secondly, the issue of time greatly affects the instruction of writing within high school classrooms. The chain of blame assumes that high school teachers do not care about preparing their students for college because they are too worried about getting them through high school. If only those selfish high school teachers would think about what their students will need for college! While in some respects this second assumption is accurate (teachers are very busy getting students to meet high school standards, pass standardized tests and meet graduation requirements), high school teachers struggle now more than ever to prepare students for the demands that will be placed upon them when entering college. With more students attending college than ever before, college preparation has become an important piece to the already crammed pile of priorities teachers try to achieve. In fact, many schools are instituting “college readiness programs” in an attempt to produce students capable of achieving well academically beyond high school. These programs are geared toward preparing ALL students—even those who may not want it—for the college atmosphere. It requires a lot of work on the part of the teacher to facilitate, promote, and teach the various aspects of applying to college and beyond. This means higher demands on teachers who already face a multitude of struggles that college professors often do not take into account (class size, ability range of students, curriculum priorities created by standardized testing, the list goes on and on). While we can agree from the research that pre-service teachers could use more training in composition theory, teacher preparation represents only a small piece of a much bigger problem causing this learning gap between high school and college, and so it is quite unfair (not to mention unproductive) to continue this cycle of blame.

Let us examine this issue of teacher responsibilities further. Perhaps the biggest constraint upon secondary English teachers, and thus a factor at play in the knowledge gap for incoming college students, is this issue of time allotted for evaluative feedback on student writing. Secondary teachers lack the time necessary to provide effective, useful feedback on student essays. As Nancy Sommers states in her article, “Responding to Student Writing,” providing feedback on student writing takes up the most of teacher time: “Most teachers estimate that it takes them at least 20 to 40 minutes to comment on an individual paper . . .” (106). Once you do the math, twenty minutes per student (most high school classrooms hold thirty or more student per section, and most teachers teach about three sections a semester) it adds up to a staggering amount of time. All teachers struggle to balance lesson planning, creating materials and preparing them for class, disciplinary issues, contacting parents, department meetings, observations, and last but certainly not least, grading. Secondary English teachers in particular struggle with this because of the writing component. Not only does completing the writing process take up a lot of classroom instruction time, but also the grading of student essays seems nearly impossible. As Doug Enders found in his study “Crossing the Divide: A Survey of the High School Activities that Best Prepared Students to Write in College,” teacher feedback plays a pivotal role in students developing successful writing habits. He states, “Although it would be beneficial to assign and provide feedback on student papers each week, it simply isn’t feasible with the heavy class loads that many high school teachers carry” (64). With sixty plus students, evaluating and commenting on student work in a manner that will markedly improve student writing seems unachievable. There simply is not enough time in the day with all of the duties secondary teachers have.

Thus, most teachers focus on sentence level, grammatical issues which are easy and quick to correct. They may make some comments in the margin of the student paper regarding organization, strength of thesis and supporting points, but because of the lack of time, these comments are often very vague and confuse students: “Often, students found their teachers’ evaluations of their writing unclear or lacking in substance” (Enders 64). The indistinct nature of these comments also does not lend itself to helping students actually revise their papers. As Sommers writes, “The comments are not anchored in the particulars of the students’ texts, but rather are a serious of vague directives that are not text-specific” (111). These comments may be the only real conversations going on between students and their teacher concerning their writing, given that the class period is short, the teacher has much to cover, and there are too many students to help in one class setting. Clearly, the combination of lacking teacher preparation with little time to evaluate student writing in a meaningful way leads to a gap in the knowledge of college composition students.


About alycemsustko

Reader, writer, catmom extraordinaire
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