Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Billing High Schools for Remediation

Over at Cold Spring Shops, there’s a suggestion that universities and four-year colleges should get out of the remediation business altogether, and outsource it to community colleges.* In response to an anticipated objection by me, to the effect that we get flak from aggrieved taxpayers for making them pay for the same course twice (that is, subsidizing us to teach material that they already paid to have taught in high school), the suggestion is that cc’s bill high schools for the instructional costs of remediation. After all, if the high schools had done their job right the first time, we wouldn’t need to remediate.

I’ve been cackling over this one, in a Snidely Whiplash sort of way.

There’s an undeniable poetic justice to it, and there would absolutely be a material incentive that would get the high schools’ attention PDQ. And I’m always up for sending more students and more funding to the cc. The mischievous part of my mind likes it, which is usually a sign that it’s a bad idea.

And it is, for several reasons.

First, and most obviously, it’s unenforceable. How far back do we go? What if the student goes out-of-state? What if a cc raises its tuition, and the high school doesn’t have the money for the increase? What if the student only needs remediation in one subject, but needs to take 12 credits for the coveted “full-time status” that keeps them eligible for financial aid and/or their parents’ health insurance? (This is incredibly common.) How long before evil proprietaries swoop in, and offer to allow students to do an end-run around the forced march to the cc? (I ask that one as a former employee of a proprietary.) How many four-year schools would have the intestinal fortitude to send half of an incoming class away? How many would they actually get back? (In reality, we’d see exceptions for athletes, then for legacies, then for people willing to pay extra, then for the litigious, then for…) A college forced to choose between teaching remedial courses and laying off swaths of employees would probably choose the former, if past practice is any guide.

(Rather than admitting it, they’d just lower the standards for passing the placement exam, and/or relabel ‘remedial’ or ‘developmental’ courses something like ‘prerequisite skills’ courses. I’ve seen it firsthand.)

Second, the taxpayers are still paying twice. Public high schools get their money from the taxpayers. If the high schools are suddenly billed by the cc, they’ll pay the bill with money raised from…wait for it…taxpayers. The substantive issue still stands.

Third, what do we do with students from other countries (which probably wouldn’t honor the tuition agreement)? Older students? Students with GED’s? Who do we bill for a high-school dropout? Someone who graduated before the new rules kick in? Someone from the neighboring county or state? (If they’re exempted, I’d expect to see informal exchange programs suddenly flourish. Online teaching makes that possible.) Are ESL courses properly considered ‘remedial,’ if the student was never taught English in the first place?

Fourth, if No Child Left Behind has taught us anything, it has taught us that high schools with financial guns at their heads are willing to play all kinds of games with numbers and tests. Entire states are lowering their standards to avoid the federally-mandated penalties for not meeting state standards. Add college tuition to the penalties, and the cheating will skyrocket. You heard it here first.

Fifth, an enterprising principal would do everything in her power to keep the risky kids from applying to college in the first place. Incentives cut both ways. I agree that college isn’t for everybody, but the opportunities for racial bias or linguistic bias or disability bias or just about any other bias you can name are just too glaring. Right now a high school can encourage each kid to go as far as his ability will take him; shift the incentive to reward early pruning, and early pruning ye shall have.

Sixth, the most powerful predictor of test performance, statistically speaking, is parental income. Overall, the lowest-income high schools would have the highest percentage of tuition penalties. Draining resources from the bottom of the economic ladder is not the way to improve academic performance there.

Seventh, local property taxes are regressive in the extreme. To the extent that high schools derive more of their budgets from local property taxes than cc’s do, shifting some of the cc funding burden to high schools would increase the overall reliance on regressive property taxes. Not good. If we want to avoid regressive transfers, which I read somewhere, then let’s avoid this.

None of this is to deny that better preparation in the high schools would be a wonderful thing for all concerned. Sure would. You betcha. And I’m all for constructive incentives, coupled with resources, to do that. I just don’t think this idea, as much fun as it is to think about, would work. The incentives, seemingly so straightforward at first blush, actually get pretty screwy if you try to apply them to messy reality.

*Depending on how you read it, it may only apply to flagship campuses. But if that’s the case, we’d have every reason to expect that rejected students would go to ancillary campuses of the same system, rather than cc’s. I went with a broader reading of the proposal to salvage its economic coherence.

I agree that billing the high school would be a terrible idea. What may be a good idea is to simply report back to them the numbers of their graduates in each cohort of remedial classes.

Something I think you missed -- this turns a community college into someplace that ONLY does remedial work, as those programs are fully supported. The departments that do college level teaching will be lost.

i really think that high schools don't have a clear way to measure their output. NCLB and their standardized tests are not an accurate measure -- clearly, one of the goals of a high school is to prepare their students for college. If they are failing to do so, the evidence will be shown in the numbers of students in remedial classes.
I personally would like to see two things happen to the public education system. First, I think we need to look to a tracking system that allows students who want and need to work upon graduation to take courses that focus on that goal rather than the lofty college prep plans that are in place. To support this I would have money go towards structured vocational programs that work with local industries to train and place graduates. If students later wanted to pursue a college degree, the minimum standards plus work experienece would allow them to do that. I would also like to see a Grade 13 put in place for students who are younger, or challenged in someway. This program would allow students to graduate but would offer them remedial skills required by colleges and universities prior to admission. This would be especially helpful to kids with learning disorders and kids who are simply immature. I envision this as an open campus type of program, similar to community colleges, but with a focus on the basic skills. Students who successfully complete the courses would recieved certification allowing them to pursue college or vocational school. I think both programs would be money well spent as it would get the universities out of the business of teaching basic skills and back into a true higher level educational experience. Just my two cents.
And... We have the law of infinite regression when it comes to blame for poorly prepared students:

HS teachers blame the middle school teachers for sending the kids without the proper skills.

MS teachers then blame the elementary teachers.

The elementary teachers say, "The parents need to make sure their kids come to school knowing their ABCs, shapes and colors."

The ability of parents to teach these things is strongly correlated with income as DD pointed out. If your parents work 70+ hours a week to afford to live in a city like Boston (for example), when do they have time to teach you these things? When do they have time to read to you.

And... We now expect kids showing up at university to know a lot more math (I'm not really sure about other subjects). Look at the history of math teaching and you'll see stuff added to the K-12 curriculum (set theory, modular arithmetic, stats and data analysis) which is important mathematics, but, which was never taught before. So, kids are responsible for knowing more math than before yet only given the same amount of time to master it. It's a wonder they show up nearly as well prepared as the do.
Here's a blistering attack on NCLB from a perhaps unexpected source:


If both the left and the right hate NCLB, why can't we get rid of it?

I'm not entirely clear on what is meant by "remediation." It sounds almost as if the high school diploma should not have been awarded? In any event, I agree that billing the high schools is not workable.
Great post, but you mention that "Seventh, local property taxes are regressive in the extreme." I don't think that's true. I think property taxes tend to be pretty targeted towards the middle class -- they're correlated to the value of your property, after all. Poor people don't live on valuable lots and so don't pay much (renters obviously still pay property taxes indirectly), and the rich don't pay in proportion to their income.
Property taxes are regressive when property values rise faster than the incomes of the owners. Their taxes go up, but the ability to pay does not, a major issue for retirees, who tend to have fixed incomes.

Sales taxes and income taxes and employment taxes have the convenience that they are imposed when money is already changing hands, and they are indexed to that exchange. Property taxes, on the other hand, seem to come out of the blue, and the adjustments in property value can look pretty arbitrary to the owner. So my neighbor sold his house for ten times what I paid for mine--that shouldn't change my cost of home ownership, should it? But it does.
Whew! I am glad I didn't just stop and post a comment based on the title!
As a former high school teacher (in a nearly all-white, rich school and another that was nearly all-black and poor) I echo the comments so far.

I think back to when I graduated. Was it any better/ Or, are more kids trying to go to college now? Is it that we are more diverse?

Of course, states like CA, FL, and TX also deal with high rates of student mobility as kids are shuffled between and among families in the north and/or the field work that is available.

The vocational ed budget is slashed; worksheets and seat work is the norm (in order to pass the tests); field trips are a thing of the past; even recess and playgrounds are disappearing from schools.

In my opinion, and experience, those students who need remediation probably do because they were so bored by the mandated, test-focused BS that teachers were forced to teach, that they just tuned out or skipped out.
As the blame rolls downhill, high school to middle school, yadda yadda, I can see the reading logs come out, and me being accused of not signing the reading log in 4th and 6th grades, for instance. Therefore, 50% of the "damages" would be the parents' responsibility. Quality parenting seems to be the common theme. And truly the only ones who have the child's best interests at heart.
NYC has already taken this step. The decision to move most, if not all, remedial and esl to the city's community colleges is currently being implemented (as is greatly reducing the availability of those courses even at the cc).

Since the closest cc may not be as local as a 4 yr college, many former students have been left behind due to geographic distances and lack of transportation. And the times and availability of the courses has changed (fewer courses, and often offered during work hours), resulting in even more limited access. I remember reading about a huge drop in enrollment in those courses after the changes began.

One of the things they supposedly based their decision on was the six year graduation rates as reported to IPEDS. The problem is, those graduation rates are focused on full-time students, but students who must work full-time and attend college part-time can take much longer than 6 years to completion. (I worked FT during my doctoral coursework, and 2 yrs of coursework quickly became 4--I also didn't get to start college until I was 30 because of a lot of these same issues.)

The worst aspect of this decision was that it was made with full knowledge that the k-12 system in NYC just wasn't able or prepared to provide what was required to keep graduating students from needing those remedial courses to make it in college. So the kids fall through the cracks between secondary and higher ed, and neither side seems willing or able to bridge the gap. I'll be interested to read some stats on how this has effected graduating hs students.

Regarding property taxes, as a renter (and a slightly lower income single parent), I can assure people that when property taxes go up, so does my rent (the landlord's sure as heck not going to pay it out of pocket). But our village (I don't know if it's a state thing) does have a substantial property tax exclusion for older residents.
Vocational high schools provide efficient training to those students that want to go into trade directly rather than joining a college. These are sometimes also referred as alternative high schools. They provide a number of programs, and various activities for the student’s development.
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