I just read a description of the experience of high school students that I thought I would share:

"Imagine you are running a race blindfolded through the streets of San Francisco. You have coaches on almost every corner, but sometimes their instructions are confusing--even contradicting those that you got a few moments back. One urges you to go straight up the upcoming hill, the next directs you around it. One yells at you to sprint the next quarter mile, while another tells you to slow down. Despite all this, you're nearing the finish line when all of a sudden a hurdle pops up out of nowhere to knock you flat. In addition to running it seems that you also needed to learn how to jump. Nobody told you."

The description comes from a new report, "Ticket to Nowhere," from the think tank Education Trust. The report documents that many students do everything they need to graduate from high school only to find that they are not prepared for college-level courses. Once at college, they must take remedial or, as they are called, noncredit courses before they can even begin their college education.

This makes the high school diploma a ticket to nowhere, the report says.

This is a problem across the country, and Prince George's is by no means immune to it. According to the latest figures, 30 to 40 percent of Prince George's students who enroll immediately in college need to take remedial math before they can begin college courses. For those students who took what is called the core curriculum--essentially the college preparatory curriculum--30 percent need remediation. Of those who took the non-core curriculum, 40 percent need remediation.

In English, the figures look a bit better: For students who took the core curriculum, 19 percent need remediation; for those who took the non-core curriculum, 28 percent. For those students who attend Prince George's Community College rather than a four-year college, the numbers are even higher.

Leroy J. Tompkins, head of instruction for Prince George's, puts the problem succinctly: "There is a definite disconnect between what is required for graduation from high school and what colleges are requiring for entry-level performance. Either K-12's standard is too low, or the college requirement is too high." One of the major disconnects, to use Tompkins's word, is in mathematics. To be ready to take college-level mathematics, students really should have mastered most of Algebra II. But, as Tompkins says, Algebra II is not a requirement for high school graduation.

A few years ago, Prince George's made Algebra I and geometry requirements for graduation and eliminated all of what Tompkins calls the dummy math courses.

But it still doesn't require Algebra II, and Tompkins--a mathematician by training--isn't convinced it should.

That, says Donald Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland, "is one of the great divides between us and them," meaning between kindergarten through grade 12 and higher education folk. "College faculty know that Algebra II is necessary to be able to do college math."

The point here is that all high school students who want to go to college should take heed. Don't get caught in the middle of this fight by taking only the math classes needed to graduate. If you do, you have only set yourself up to take high school math in college, only this time around, you'll have to pay for it, and you won't get any credit toward a degree. The best is to aim for calculus or pre-calculus, but at the very least take Algebra II.

And don't tell me you're not going to college. As Langenberg said, "We are nearing a time of universal college-going."

In Prince George's public schools, 45 percent of high school seniors say they are planning to go to four-year college full time immediately after high school; 15 percent say they are going to go to a two-year college full time; and an additional 19 percent say they plan on going to school while working. That's 79 percent of the high school seniors in the county. And those who plan on going into the military may be in for a shock: If you plan on staying in the military, you, too, will be going to college. It is a little-known fact that the College of the Air Force is one of the largest degree-granting institutions in the country.

So you might as well prepare for college by taking Algebra II. If you work really hard at it, you might find it fun.

As Langenberg said, "mathematics is a language, and it is no harder or easier to learn than Spanish--or that other very important language, music."

One resource that high school students should take advantage of is a test used by Prince George's Community College to see whether they need remediation. It was offered formally in five high schools last year, but only about 10 students at each school took it.

This is a bit puzzling because it cost nothing, and if students were identified as needing help, they could get it right at the high school, without paying for it at college.

If anyone wants to tell me why you didn't take it, I'd love to know. And if you want to take it this year, tell your principal or guidance counselor.

Dear Homeroom: Phonics does not seem to be in place in Prince George's County. My experience with four elementary schools is that there are no phonics lessons. The school system does teach "a" is for apple, but not how the letter "a" sounds. The problem may be that schools teach memory, not pronunciation. Maybe phonics is incorporated, but I just don't see it.

Dorian Lipscombe


If you think of educational institutions as battleships going at full speed, you will get an idea of how difficult it is for them to change direction. That's kind of what is happening throughout the country regarding phonics, the systematic, explicit reaching of the sounds, or phonemes, and their associated letters and letter combinations. For a long time--probably most of the time many of the current teachers were preparing to be teachers--phonics was in disgrace. Teachers were told that phonics was actually harmful and would destroy children's interest in reading.

The replacement for phonics was "whole language," a philosophy that held that immersing and surrounding children in wonderful children's literature would lead children to a natural mastery of reading and writing. Part of whole language is to encourage children to read and write without worrying about the mechanics such as spelling, sentence structure and pronunciation. It encourages the use of prediction and figuring out whether text makes sense rather than what the exact text is.

After reading scores dropped in places that adopted whole language--California was the biggest experiment--huge amounts of research on reading instruction was done. As a result, reading scientists and leading educators have come to a consensus. They say that if our aim is to make sure every child knows how to read, then the best instruction combines both. In other words, whole language proponents brought something important to the table, but explicit instruction in the underlying structure of words is demonstrably essential for some and probably most children.

So all of a sudden, teachers who for years were told not to teach phonics are now being told that they must teach phonics. It's a turnaround that battleships would make look easy, but it's a little harder for schools.

Not all school districts have agreed about the importance of phonics, but Prince George's has. It adopted the newly phonics-reformed Houghton-Mifflin series, Invitations to Literacy, and provided--in addition to the training provided by the publisher--10 mandatory phonics training sessions for every kindergarten through third-grade teacher in the county.

This might not be enough, but it's not a bad start. It has become clear in the last few years that teaching reading is incredibly complex (a new book on the subject, by Louisa C. Moats, a leading reading researcher, is even titled "Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science"). In addition to the training provided by the county, all current and future elementary school teachers will have to complete four courses (two for secondary teachers) in how to teach reading. It's unclear how much of those courses will concentrate on phonics, but at least part of them will.

If you are not seeing phonics in your children's reading program, talk to the teacher. Maybe you are missing something. But if the teacher hasn't caught up yet with the new direction, talk to the principal.

Every child in Prince George's ought to have access to phonics instruction. And for some background reading, try "Straight Talk About Reading: How Parents Can Make a Difference During the Early Years" by Moats and Susan L. Hall.

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