Monday, October 24, 2005


Odd Fantasies, or, Why Remediation is Always With Us

My oddball fantasy:

Throughout this land, there would be a flourishing of taxpayer-funded schools, targeted at kids in the 13-to-17 age range. These schools could teach teenagers a love of learning, made possible by a solid grounding in the fundamentals: writing skills, multiple languages, rigorous math and science preparation, full engagement in the arts, hands-on training in trades, a sense of history, and a citizen’s knowledge of government. These schools would train body and mind, and inculcate a love of excellence. They would embrace a plethora of learning styles, preparing the college-bound for college and the trades-bound for trades. By virtue of their location in the economically and racially diverse towns and cities of this fine land, they would teach diversity awareness simply in the course of doing other things. We could call these strange places ‘high schools.’


Instead, judging by the amount of remediation we have to do at the cc level, what we have for the 13-to-17 population could be described as holding tanks.

Remediation is a live wire, as a political topic. Yet, educationally, it’s an obvious need.

Some have argued that colleges should get out of the remediation business. Leave high school material to the high schools, and don’t bill the taxpayers twice for teaching subject-verb agreement or the pythagorean theorem. Save tax money, and maintain the brand integrity of higher education.

Tell ya what. Fulfill my oddball fantasy, and I’ll buy into that one.

If the cc’s stopped doing remediation, who would pick it up? I can think of a few alternatives:

- Nobody.

- Volunteer groups/churches/concerned citizens. What the worshippers of the free market never quite seem to grasp, when they resort to this fantasy, is that it gets the incentives all wrong. If you force the noble few who actually do the hard work to go without wages, you’ll drive them away. You punish those who help, and reward those who don’t give a rat’s ass. Over time, you get more of what you reward. Obviously, if we want to attack basic skills deficits in a serious way, we have to pay the people who attack it well enough to get and keep them.

- Unscrupulous, fly-by-night, profiteering hucksters, preying on the desperate.

- Corporations. The problems with this theory are plentiful. Corporations will generally invest in training only when they bear a good likelihood of capturing the resultant gains. If MegaGlobalCorpoMax sponsors literacy classes for employees, it doesn’t then want those employees to quit and work elsewhere for more money. So it won’t sponsor them, or it will require a subsequent period of indentured servitude. Add to that the volatility of corporate funding generally, and this solution starts to look pretty silly.

- The illiterate themselves. They’ll pull themselves up by their own bootstraps! Probably, some small percentage will. Most won’t. This is not a serious answer.

- High schools! Make them open enrollment, so the illiterate 25 year old can hang around the 16 year olds during the day, on the taxpayer’s dime. No problems there...

I agree that it’s vaguely depressing to realize that courses like “college algebra” exist. (To my mind, that’s an oxymoron. College math proper begins with calculus.) I’m not wild about colleges having “Reading” departments. That said, I don’t see the real-world alternative. And I don’t think my fantasy of high schools is any farther afield than any of the alternatives I’ve seen proposed. It’s regrettable that remediation is necessary, but it’s necessary.

"Over time, you get more of what you reward."

This is certainly true. It suggests that over time, we've been rewarding the wrong thing in our high schools. Lord knows we've been dumping an inordinate amount of money into them--why the lack of progress?

What we've been rewarding in high school is attendance. What we ought to reward is achievement. How do we move in that direction?
It would be great to more fully design the curriculum for the fantasy high schools . . . . . the points you make to getting rid of remediation at colleges is well taken. It would also be a good reminder to college professors of any discipline to remember that teaching the communication skills of our disciplines is also something that needs to be continually reinforced, whether you are talking about freshmen or graduate students. That's part of why I like exploring the development of historical thinking skills in my discipline. They may differ in regard to specifics by course but all reinforce the same concepts and ways of thinking about history's being more than facts and dates randomly assembled.
Fantasy HS or getting rid of remedial courses would work only if it is enforced strictly. What you suggest is very similar to the secondary/tertiary education model in some other countries (like the 3-year British model.) They start their major right away in the first year (or second year, the latest), and they simply can't get into college if they don't do well in the college entrance exams. They lay the burden of getting students to college in the hands of HS. Remedial courses are very rare, and college education is a hard-earned privilege.

I received my degrees that way. :P I hated it. That model does not give any second chance at all. Again, college education is a privilege, not something common. Here in the states, I see lots of opportunities for adults seeking a second shot at college. Remedial courses give them a great chance to refresh what they learned decades ago.

If you get rid of remedial all together, college education would be only for some teenagers who did well in HS. College education would be made quite inaccessible for late bloomers or adults, if there wasn't any remedial courses.
It's worth noting some of the costs of remediation for the student. In general, a student entering with significant deficiencies (e.g., in math, writing, and reading combined) faces severe difficulties in registering for a full slate of classes.

For example, it's difficult at my institution for a student who wants to major in business to make much progress before dealing with the math deficiency, which often takes 2- 4 semesters. Intro econ has a math requirement, as does the intro to computers class. And these are prerequisites for almost all the business classes.

In my own experience of advising students, it's not uncommon to find a student who can only take one or two non-developmental classes a semester.
You're right as always, Dean Dad.
I'm afraid if the cc's didn't have to pick up the pieces, then the profiteering hucksters would be the next in line to take charge :(

I'm embarassed to say that my college has a two-semester Freshman course called "Reading and Writing," and that I had to take this course. "Honors Reading and Writing" almost sounds like an oxymoron. We also had a class called something like "everyday mathmatics" or "contemporary mathematics," which is basically Venn diagrams. And this is a level *higher* than "college algebra.

I took precalc/trig as my college math, primarily because I'm a humanities person and I'm afraid of calculus. But we specialize for a reason--I wouldn't expect math majors to take advanced Spanish literature in their Freshman year...
How to redesign high school curricula? I don't know -- my experience is in higher ed. Even if we did, though, we'd still have the 'late bloomer' problem (and its close cousin, immigration -- even if we fix our own high schools, what do we do with the immigrant who arrives at 22 with very little English?)

Doc raises an excellent point about full-time schedules. Financial aid rules (and health insurance rules) usually require a student to be enrolled for at least 12 credits at a time to count as a full-time student. If a student needs remediation in both English and math, it's incredibly difficult to find 12 credits for which the student is academically eligible. It gets worse if the student needs multiple semesters of remediation.

I don't raise these issues because I have easy answers for them; I raise them because I distrust most of the easy answers I've heard.
I don't think it's about curricula. The information is out there.

It's the motivation, though - making them reach through the screen to pick up the chocolate bar, to use a Dahl metaphor.

Basically, the entire curriculum of most high schools I've met could be conveyed in less than a single school year.

Getting teenagers to pay attention to material that is not of their own choosing for a full working year (or even for four years of their high school schedule) - that's the trick, apparently.

I'm afraid that's the reason remediation is always with us: you can't get 'em to care enough about learning the first time around.
Lingling-zilla said:
"If you get rid of remedial all together, college education would be only for some teenagers who did well in HS. College education would be made quite inaccessible for late bloomers or adults, if there wasn't any remedial courses."

Depends... In Australia you can do your HS again as an adult if you want. You can go to TAFE which isn't, I think, the same as the US CC, although you can transfer some credits the way you can at CC.

I don't see why the CCs can't continue to provide remedial education for those students who need to fill gaps in their knowledge and skills, but I completely do not understand why four-year colleges and universities should remediate or offer pre-freshman courses. I feel that in math, precalculus is about the most elementary course that a four-year should offer, and most students should already have taken it in high school. In English, students should be ready to jump straight into freshman composition or the equivalent.

Many of my freshman comp students used to complain about the heavy reading assignments. What?! I heard this complaint all the time in a ten-week course that required that students read a number of essays (a couple a week), one classic children's book, and a 400-page contemporary novel. If I had been allowed to assign the stuff I had to read as a freshman (when I taught, I was a TA and couldn't really design my own reading list), THEN they might have a valid complaint. After all, it's completely unreasonable to expect mere children to read stuff like Erasmus, Swift, Dickens, Henry James, Dostoevski, Nietzsche, or Marcuse. Why should they be remotely well-read? After all, they paid their money, and they SHOWED UP, and reading Voltaire and Sartre doesn't put money in their pockets...
This is such a tough issue. I am the mother of a middle schooler and I see how weak his language arts and math curriculums are and how little is really expected of him. On the other hand, his writing skills exceed the remedial writing students I work with who have no idea what a noun or a verb are much less how to to organize a paragraph or write a cogent essay.

Yet, I am grateful that CC's exist and that remedial courses are offered since I am an older student looking to find a new career path. Since I am many years past high school, I have had to take intermediate algebra and then precalculus aka "College Algebra" and trigonometry just so that I can finally take calculus.

I attended a conference in Austria this summer and was amazed that no real opportunity exists for an adult education. I left with a greater appreciation for the CC I both attend and am employed by.

While I would love to see adolescents intellectually engaged at the K-12 level, the need for CC remediation will never quite go away as long as they are in the business of providing an educational haven for the non-traditional student. Althouth I took honors math classes at a very well-regarded high school, I still needed the opportunity to refresh my skills before embarking on "the bigger picture."
Excellent post, as usual. I think you're right that it has to stay in colleges, but that doesn't make that any easier, does it? I mean, the student resistance alone is sometimes overwhelming.
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