Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Make‘em Pay?

Community college folk often complain, when getting blamed for high remediation rates, that what’s really being measured is the performance of the local high schools.  A state senator in Tennessee is proposing to base budgets on that.

State Senator Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is proposing to make students’ high school districts reimburse the students for the remedial classes that students need when they arrive at community college.

To which I say, wow.

The knee-jerk appeal is strong.  For recent graduates -- and to his credit, Senator Gardenhire confines it to recent graduates, so we’re not talking about folks who’ve been out of school for ten years -- rustiness shouldn’t be a major issue.  From a student perspective, paying for courses to fill in gaps that your high school left seems like punishing the victim.  From a community college perspective, getting blamed for high remediation rates (and shouldering the cost of those rates) hardly seems fair; if a student shows up underprepared, you don’t blame the place she showed up.  

But it still doesn’t sit right with me.  

On a really basic level, it would further impoverish the school districts that are already struggling the most.  If a school district is doing a poor job, it’s probably not because it has too much money.  Draining funds from schools that are already strapped isn’t likely to lead anywhere good. It would be like draining funds from fire departments in cities with lots of fires.

Mechanically, it would be a missed opportunity.  If the school districts were invoiced directly, rather than doing reimbursements, students could conserve their Pell eligibility for future semesters.  With Pell eligibility reduced to twelve semesters, that matters.

Beyond that, though, the bill would work against innovations that involve embedding extra help into college-level classes.  Isolating charges for remedial courses presumes the existence of freestanding remedial courses, but the most interesting and hopeful trends involve moving away from that model.  The Accelerated Learning Program, developed by the Community College of Baltimore County, directs students straight into credit-bearing courses, and pairs up developmental sections to provide just-in-time, as-needed extra help.  It’s expensive, but it has shown promising results, especially in English.  Saddling high schools with the cost for that could kneecap efforts to improve the high schools, and thereby defeat the purpose.

Rather than punishing poverty, I’d prefer to see resources directed to ways to prevent the need for remediation in the first place.  Start by requiring four years of math in high school; I maintain that any state that fails to do that has no standing to criticize community colleges.  If the students are in high school anyway, why not teach them math?  It may make sense to use the senior year to solidify and review the basics for some students, but that’s a fair sight better than nothing.  If it sets the students up to succeed in college, it’s worth it.

And let’s loosen the rules (and the pursestrings) to enable building on reforms that actually work.  That could mean early college high schools, the ALP model, self-paced models, or all manner of other things.  It doesn’t mean fitting the square peg into the round hole by just pushing harder.  

Whether Senator Gardenhire’s bill is enacted or not, though, I’m happy to see the discussion.  Ultimately, the solution to remediation will have to involve conceiving of K-12 and higher ed as part of a larger ecosystem.  Whether that means the Common Core or not, it’s counterproductive for the two systems to continue to talk past each other.  I’d prefer to start with voice, rather than invoice, but I’ll give credit for sparking discussion.