High School is to Breadth What College is to Depth

Education Week is reporting on a study that the makers of the ACT have recently put out that points to the gap between what high schools and college teachers want their students to be ready for when they come to college.

The new survey found that college professors generally want incoming students to have a deeper understanding of a selected number of topics and skills, while high school teachers in all content areas tend to rate a far broader array of content and skills as “important” or “very important.”

In other words, the “array” of content coverage is a sign that HS emphasizes breadth, while college tends to emphasize depth of work in a single content area. I’m not sure if this happens because of the assumptions of high school teachers about what college actually expects, or if it is merely a symptom of a larger neurosis regarding testing (prompted, perhaps, by NCLBA). “Breadth” is easy to test and grade, and errs toward assessing memorized knowledge over analytical and critical thinking, which usually takes essay reading and concentrated analysis in itself to generate a response.

Thus, the report itself shows the outcome:

the survey found a general lack of reading courses in high school and a decline in the teaching of targeted reading strategies after the 9th grade. In contrast, college instructors of remedial courses rated such strategies as very important and reported devoting a large percentage of time to teaching them.

I am not damning all High School in some generic, demonizing way. One of the things colleges have to offer is a shift in this paradigm of thinking. I think breadth is perhaps JUST AS important as depth for that level of learner, and I would simply suggest that some sort of balance should be sought. Whether or not an institution can support that kind of balance, in a frenzy to establish assessable outcomes, is debatable. But until teachers begin supporting reading in every way they can — which means being active readers of their own student’s writing, in addition to simply assigning texts — the culture will not change.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.