reader mail

So, I got an email from an 8th grader.  I'm not sure how I feel about this since I think that's a little early to be researching college options with any real seriousness.  It also reinforces my burgeoning manifesto-in-preparation that we're putting too much downward pressure on the whole system.  That is, with the emergence of pre-IB programs in middle schools, how much longer will it be before we have pre-pre-IB programs in elementary schools, and then the inevitable pre-pre-pre-IB track in daycare?  We were joking about this in the office; the young children of the staff need to get enrolled in preschool AP A-B-C's class to get ahead of the game. All joking aside, though, I thought I'd share this email and my response.  Actually, I've decided not to include the actual message at all for privacy reasons, but I'll summarize.  The actual note was quite sweet.

From: xxxxxxxxxxx Sent: Tuesday, March 02, 2010 12:10 AM To: Knudson,Kevin P Subject: Question from Middle School Student

Dr. Knudson,

    Hello.  I'm in the 8th grade at a school in another state, but I am a huge UF fan and am really interested in attending.  I'm involved in multiple sports and clubs at my school, and I'm taking all honors courses now.  I've signed up for all honors courses in high school next year, and my past experiences have made me ready to handle all the stresses of my curriculum.

I'd like some advice on what I should focus on in high school to be ready for college.  I'm thinking of majoring in journalism.  Any tips would be appreciated.



And here's my response:

Dear xxxxxxxxxxx, 

Since you’re sending me emails after midnight on a school night, I’d say my first piece of advice is to get more sleep.

In all seriousness, though, I’m glad to know that you’re thinking about college and trying to make some preparations.  These are big decisions.  The University of Florida is a very good university, and in a few years when you’re applying to colleges I encourage you to take a long look at UF.  But there are also some very good universities in your own state, and the surrounding ones, and even in the Northeast and on the West Coast, and I suggest you keep your options open for now.  You have some time to figure out which place is right for you.  Visit some universities in the next couple of years.  Check out some colleges’ sites on the internet.  Talk to your parents about it.

It sounds like you’re a serious student with good time-management skills.  That is probably the best indicator of future success.  I’m sure that if you keep pushing yourself academically by taking a challenging, but not burdensome, curriculum you’ll be in good shape.  As for specific courses, I’ll leave that judgment to you and your advisors.  It’s true that students are taking more and more AP courses these days, but don’t take them just for the sake of taking them, just to add another line to your resume.  It might sound strange coming from the director of an honors program at a major university, but I am wary of students who have too many honors.  It seems disingenuous. 

My primary piece of advice is this:  figure out what it is you love and pursue it with everything you have.  Talent is the easy part; it’s as common as dirt.  Success comes from taking that talent and honing it through practice.  You say you have a passion for writing.  Do you do it every day?  Not for school, but just to do it?  Do you read a lot?  Which writers do you admire?  What sort of writing do you want to do?  Even in the field of journalism there are many options---investigative, special interests, etc.  Think about these things and find your answers.  The rest will take care of itself.

But most importantly, take time to still be a teenager.  Since you’re in 8th grade, you’re just 13 or 14 years old.  As important as it is to think about your future, it’s just as important to live in the now.  Spend time with your family and friends.  Continue to play sports and develop your hobbies.  Remember that you’re still a kid, and you have time to figure it all out.  Don’t stress yourself out now---you’ll have your entire adult life for that.

If my calculations are correct (and I hope they are since I’m a mathematician), you’ll be entering college in the fall of 2014.  At that point I’ll be entering my 6th year as director of the UF Honors Program.  Maybe our paths will cross.

Good luck.

Dr. K

I've been reading scholarship applications lately.  Lists of credentials as long as my arm.  AP Biology in the 9th grade.  Really?  That seems a little early to me.  If the course is truly the equivalent of a college biology course, then there's no way the typical 14-year-old should be able to do really well.

Ah, you're going to say to me, "Well, we're not talking about typical 14-year-olds here.  These are honors students."  True enough, but I have some interesting data for you.  The president of the Mathematical Association of America, David Bressoud, was at UF a couple of weeks ago talking about preparation and participation in college mathematics.  It was an interesting talk, and I won't tell you the whole story (if you'd like to see the slides, you may retrieve them here).  But here's one point that stood out to me:  In 1982, 5.1% of American high school students were taking calculus in high school.  I'd say that's pretty accurate.  When I took calculus my senior year (1986-7) in Winston-Salem, NC, there were only about 150 students in the entire county (about 3000 seniors) taking the course.  In fact, it wasn't offered at the eight individual schools; we had to drive to a central location to take the class.  Twenty-five years later, in 2007, the percentage nationwide was up to over 15%.  As one of my colleagues in the math department put it, it's not as if the gene pool has gotten that much stronger in those 25 years, so what's going on? (One further comment on the percentages:  the population of the U.S. grew substantially in those years, so the absolute number of students taking calculus in high school has really gone up.)

There are at least two things going on.  First, No Child Left Behind has made American education a race to the bottom.  Teachers have to spend the bulk of their time preparing students to pass the mandated standardized tests.  I don't blame them for this; it's what the law requires and school funding is based heavily on student performance on these rather arbitrary assessments.  Moreover, the administrative tasks associated with teaching are expanding exponentially (my sister-in-law could fill you in on that), forcing teachers to spend too much of their time verifying that they are teaching (rather than actually teaching).  Really, it's remarkable that our kids have time to learn anything, and I'm grateful for the hard work most K-12 teachers put into their jobs.  I've certainly been pleased with my son's teachers here in Gainesville.

One unintended consequence of this is that students at the upper end of the achievement spectrum are often left twiddling their thumbs.  This creates a need for honors and AP courses as a mechanism to keep them from getting bored.  That's fine, and it's not new.  I was in these classes all the way back in the early 80s, although, again, back then there was one such class in each grade level in the entire school (and in elementary school I had to be bussed out of my assigned district to get to a school which had the class).  It's much bigger now, and I think it is at least partially attibutable to the lowering of the bar that must go on to comply with NCLB.  Again, one must ask:  is the gene pool really that much stronger now?  Are students really that much smarter?

I don't think so.  The real problem, it seems to me, is that we've trained students to seek credentials.  We teach them how to take tests and reward them for doing well.  We've told them that they should work hard and take the most challenging curriculum available and take as many AP courses as possible to show college admissions officers just how worthy they are.  At first this comes off as just simple encouragement, but eventually it becomes a competition, and an unhealthy one at that.  So of course more students are going to take more AP courses, whether they're really ready for them or not.  Having taught college students for nearly 20 years, I can claim confidently that at least half the students I encounter show up ill-prepared for college calculus.  Most of these students will tell me that they took the course in high school.  So there's a serious disconnect.

The College Board is not blameless in this either.  When I was in high school in the 80s, there were only a handful of AP courses available---calculus, American history, European history, physics, chemistry, biology, English language, and English literature.  There may have been a couple more.  Now we see things like AP human geography and AP psychology.  Why?  Is it really essential for a high school student to study psychology?  Add to that the new designations the College Board hand out, like "AP Scholar with Distinction," which I think means getting a score of 3 or better on 3 exams.  Is that really something to trumpet?  I did that, but I didn't get a certificate for it (nor do I think it's necessary). 

There has been a massive proliferation of "honor societies" at the high school and college level.  Aside from the standard National Honor Society, it seems that just about every discipline now has its own National Honor Society to go along with it:  Spanish, French, Latin, Art,...  There's Mu Alpha Theta (for mathematics).  What do these mean?  Why do they exist?  I think I was in the Spanish National Honor Society in high school, but I cannot remember a single meeting or activity.  Which is not to say that individual chapters of these organizations at particular schools aren't active, but I'm dubious at best.

I'm reminded of what is, in my opinion, the best Pixar film, The Incredibles.  At one point, Helen Parr (aka Elastigirl) is in the car with her son, Dash (super speedy), and she tells him that "everyone is special."  Dash replies, "Which is just another way of saying no one is."  So by creating all these honors, we've leveled the playing field in the sense that it makes it pretty difficult to pick out the really exceptional people.  Plus, so many of them seem vacuous.  Here's a humorous take on it.

So as I'm reading applications I have to look for the nuances.  What's interesting about this person?  Are they just gathering accolades for the sake of it?  Luckily, there are essays attached, and that often says a lot more than a list of credentials.  It's not easy.  Wish me luck.