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.