Monday, June 03, 2013

Weirdly Brilliant

I have to give the state of Florida credit.  There’s something weirdly brilliant in this.

The state of Florida is planning to increase dramatically the percentage of students who are ready for college level courses by...wait for it...calling them ready!

I had not thought of that.

Starting in 2014, any student who entered the ninth grade in Florida after 2003-4, and who has a standard Florida high school diploma, will be automatically exempted from remedial classes.  The exemption also applies to all active-duty members of the military.

As I read the story, students won’t be banned from remedial classes; they just won’t have to take them.  Students who want to, apparently could.  (How that would work with financial aid is left unclear.)  I don’t imagine that many would, but they’d have the option.

I’m glad that Massachusetts isn’t doing this, but I’m also glad somebody is.  Between Connecticut’s “one and done” remediation model and Florida’s massive exemptions, we’re seeing a couple of potentially revealing natural experiments.  If nothing else, these should both provide valuable lessons for other states, whether positive or negative.

In a perfect world, of course, Florida’s law would be redundant.  High school graduates would have the skills they need to be college-ready right out of the gate.  This law would be as unnecessary as the NBA passing a rule that the average height of players on any given team must exceed six feet.  

But this isn’t that world.  

Even in the Florida case, they’ll have adult students who missed the window, high school grads who moved in from other states after the start of ninth grade, out-of-state students, and people with GED’s.  So the exemption isn’t total.  But it’s certainly sweeping.

The research I’ve seen over the last few years strongly suggests that much remedial coursework accomplishes little or nothing in terms of graduation rates; if anything, by increasing time to degree, it makes it likelier that life will get in the way.  (I’ve also been less than impressed with the lack of predictive validity among placement tests.)  To the extent that remediation is either ineffective or counterproductive, there’s certainly a strong argument for retiring it.  

I’m still wary of such blunt-force interventions, though.  Were it up to me, I’d prefer to see a combination of accelerated “boot camp” models, embedded as-needed help, and beefed-up tutoring centers.  (My psychic powers tell me that this rule change won’t come with more money for tutoring.  Call me cynical.)  But ultimately, whether my preference would be more effective, or whether we should just rip off the band-aid and be done with it, can be settled empirically.  After a few years, we should get a pretty good idea of the effects of Florida’s change (and Connecticut’s, for that matter).  

Thanks, Florida, for volunteering to do something audacious, hamhanded, and possibly stupid.  One way or another, the rest of us will learn from your example.