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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Q: Should colleges offer remedial-education programs for students?

Insight on the News, June 29, 1998 by Stanley O. Ikenberry, Nicholas Stix

Yes: They shore up academic standards while democratizing higher education.
By Stanley O. Ikenberry

(Ikenberry, formerly president of the University of Illinois, is president of the American Council on Education, an independent nonprofit association in Washington.)

The truth is, no one likes remedial education. No one likes to fix an educational deficiency. It would be easier for faculty members and better for colleges if everyone came to college already in possession of all they needed to know in order to pursue whatever program they might desire. In my 46 years as president of the University of Illinois, I cannot recall having met a fan of remedial education. And yet Illinois, like nearly every other university in the country, offers such courses and programs.

The question is: Why? Why do some of the top universities in the country offer remedial-education courses? Where do these students come from in the first place?

And, why aren’t admission standards higher to screen out the unprepared?

Universities offer students the opportunity to remove deficiencies because they care about quality and the enforcement of academic standards. Freshmen are not the only students who take remedial courses. It is not unusual for medical schools, colleges of engineering, law schools and others to require students to fix academic deficiencies before they go on. This is, in essence, an important form of quality control. If those who argue for total elimination of remedial education are interested in academic quality and standards, they should think again.

Who are these students needing remediation? Some, it is me, have coasted through high school; and some, ultimately, may be unable to perform at the college level. But many more have deficiencies for other reasons: The high school they attended simply did not offer the courses they needed to prepare them for college, and that is a special problem in areas such as science and mathematics. Some are immigrants needing help with English or writing, and once that is provided, they do remarkably well. Other students have a deficiency because their interests changed midway through matriculation -- they began college thinking they were interested in business, but later turned their attention to chemistry or computer engineering.

So, if fixing academic deficiencies boosts quality, and if significant numbers of students are likely to need help at one point or another, what should be done? I see three options:

First, just say no: Bar unprepared students from enrolling. The problem with this solution is not just the consequences for the students, but that the economy, the country and the society cannot tolerate it. America simply cannot survive economically unless most citizens have some education beyond high school.

Others would say: Legislate remediation out of existence. But such action would cheapen the value of a college degree and undermine the competitiveness of America in the international marketplace. Ignoring academic deficiencies rather than fixing them is the first step toward lowering academic expectations and standards.

The only acceptable answer is to fix the deficiency. And here, of course, the questions become: When? Where? By whom? How quickly? And, how efficiently can it be done?

The spotlight now is on the City University of New York, or CUNY, where the Board of Trustees recently approved a proposal to eliminate remedial instruction at all of the four-year colleges in the system. CUNY’s decision, however, is only the latest salvo in the battle being waged over remediation. Indeed, the cost of remedial education is a burden to some institutions, and colleges and universities around the country are struggling with this age-old academic dilemma that suddenly has taken on political and ideological dimensions.

Trustees and other policymakers become impatient with the debate about remedial education. The temptation to posture mad politicize is powerful, but it’s one that needs to be resisted. During the years, we’ve learned that the best academic policy is not likely to be made from the top down. Sound academic policy, including decisions on the curriculum, admission standards and academic issues generally, are best handled by the faculty and academic leaders rather than by government. The intervention of politics, be it through trustees or political officials, offers a blunt sword to attack a complex problem.

In the case of CUNY, responsibility for all remedial work now is assigned to the system’s community colleges. This decision ultimately may penalize thousands of students who are capable of succeeding in college, but who initially require short-term remedial help.

However, if community colleges can do it better, quicker and more efficiently; if students will gain competence and move toward graduation; and if America’s talent will be more fully developed to higher standards of academic quality than ever before--the trustees’ action may be wise. At this juncture, unfortunately, we have little evidence that any of these hopes will be fulfilled.

The stakes for New York are high. And as this volatile issue is addressed elsewhere around the country, the challenge to get the right answer will grow.

The facts are these:

* Nearly all (80 percent) of higher education institutions that enroll freshmen offer remedial courses. All public two-year colleges and 94 percent of institutions with high minority enrollment offer remedial reading, writing or mathematics.

* Nearly 30 percent of first-time undergraduates require one or more remedial courses.

* Only a small percentage of older students (11 percent) reenrolling in college reported taking remedial education, but these students make up about 40 percent of freshmen requiring remediation.

* More than 80 percent of the students needing remediation take only one or two remedial courses; very few students take four or more remedial courses.

* Many students who take remedial courses graduate from college. Indeed, more than 40 percent of students who take remedial courses earn a bachelor’s degree within five years--a rate only slightly lower than for students who do not require remedial education.

* Not surprisingly, the more remedial education a student needs, the less likely they are to earn a college degree.

Ultimately, college students and our society would be better off it all students who arrive at college campuses were well prepared to succeed academically. The inescapable fact is that many simply are not.

Yes, we need stronger and better high schools. Yes, students should be serious in their academic preparation for college. Yes, collaborative efforts between grades K-12 and higher education institutions must be strengthened. But each college and university in the country has the responsibility of setting standards of admission that are appropriate to its mission. And every higher-education institution must address the unavoidable need to fix deficiencies for some students who require it in order to complete their college education.

Within this framework, fixing academic deficiencies as soon and as quickly as they are identified is a virtue, not a crime.

Whatever the policy, it will need to be judged against the results that it produces. In the information age, the strength of America lies in a highly educated, well-functioning citizenry. That is the ultimate standard against which colleges and universities must be measured, and that is the standard against which all academic policies, including remedial education, ultimately must be judged. We need more, not fewer, highly educated Americans.


No: They Inflate Enrollments and Turn Colleges into Overpriced High Schools
By Nicholas Stix

(Stix is both an alumnus of and an instructor at the City University of New York and an award-winning journalist specializing in urban and educational issues.)

The battle over the future of college education just got hotter. On May 26 the City University of New York, or CUNY, Board of Trustees voted to phase out remediation at CUNY’s four-year colleges during the next three years, and to limit community-college remediation to one year. (The regents’ meeting was the scene of a near riot, in which 24 demonstrators were arrested.) Two unlikely allies, liberal Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and conservative Republican Gov. George Pataki made common cause to support the regents’ plan. CUNY faculty were unalterably opposed to eliminating remediation in four-year schools, as well as limits on repeating remedial classes and limits on financial aid for remediation.

Similar showdowns are looming in several other states. The concerned parties in this fight fall broadly into three camps:

1) “progressive remediationists” who call for unlimited remediation, and unlimited financial aid for students to repeat remedial classes;

2) “moderate remediationists,” who seek to create a nexus between the schools and the colleges, so that high-school graduates will have the skills that college requires; and

3) “anti-remediationists” who see in remediation a reward for incompetent teachers and students, and a method for inflating college enrollment.

I adhere to the third group.

In New York, massive remediation was necessitated by the CUNY Board of Trustees’ political decision to end meritocracy in favor of open admissions in 1970. This decision guaranteed every New York City high-school graduate a place in the system.

The New York model has long since gone national. Take Louisiana, where Joseph E. Savoie, the Board of Regents’ commissioner on higher education, tells me that 48.5 percent of all first-time freshmen require remediation. Or California, where 43 percent of incoming students in the California State University system need English remediation and 53 percent require math remediation. A 1996 statistical study by policy analyst Linda Knopp of the American Council on Education found that 56 percent of American college freshmen required at least one remedial course.

At CUNY today, 68 percent of four-year college and 87 percent of community college (up 11.5 percent from the previous year) first-time freshmen require reading, writing or math remediation, based on having flunked 11th-grade tests in reading and writing and 10th-grade tests in math. CUNY students claim the tests are on a junior-high-school level and that many CUNY classes function on a sixth or seventh-grade level.

Self-styled progressives defending remedial courses for years have charged that the call for higher standards is part of a racist plot to whiten CUNY. Despite promises 30 years ago of educational miracles, and remediation’s track record since as a virtual guarantor of failure, remediation defenders demand unlimited remediation and unlimited financial aid. Psychology Professor Lawrence Rushing of CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College harangues, “Higher standards without more opportunity to improve is unjust. The real problem with CUNY is that it’s doing its job too well -- educating all the people, and not just some!”

Let’s take a closer look at the job CUNY is doing. The following complete essay was written by a New York City high-school graduate in a community-college class:

“I am going to college, to learn a profession for my future, My major is computer science. In this moments is difficult, to someone get a good job. It is important, you go to school to learn, because you finish major. After that you get a good job, in Important company, they pay you a lot of money, do you could a position in the society and every do you Want. for that I am going to college.”

Remediationists blame the public schools for underserving CUNY’s students. While correct, this tactic boomerangs. For, according to the United Federation of Teachers, between 80 and 90 percent of New York’s public-school teachers themselves are CUNY graduates.

As economist Thomas Sowell has reported, the teaching profession is dominated nationally by the lowest 25 percent of academic achievers. Thus, New York public education is a $13.7 billion-per-year failure. (This breaks down to paying $7,600 per pupil for the schools, and $21,000 per student for CUNY.) While the statewide passing rate on New York’s teacher certification exam is 76 percent, the passing rate of State University of New York alumni, with limited access to remediation, is 95 percent. CUNY alumni have a 62 percent passing rate. At CUNY’s City College, once the nation’s top undergraduate college, the passing rate only is 35 percent. The failures -- semiliterate, when not functionally illiterate -- keep on teaching.

Inexplicably, remediationists routinely support the progressive writing theories of Linda Brodkey, et al., which insist that it fundamentally is wrong to correct students’ writing. Brodkey and Co. argue that remediation imposes a hegemonic, white middle-class culture on indigenous student cultures which are authentic, and even superior to the mainstream culture. Intellectual consistency would require that progressives oppose remediation.

Why, then, do so many academics and administrators lobby for the continuation of remediation? Their own material interests cannot be ignored. Larger student bodies ensure the flow of aid from state and federal funders. It may be argued that the louder their voices get, the more we hear the money talking. However, if you pay a plumber to fix a leak, and afterward the leak floods your home, you don’t give him more money. You sue him and get his license revoked.

Legislators in Louisiana and California are seeking to do something to dam the flood. Louisiana State Sen. Tom Greene, a Republican, sponsored S337 last year to make students and the school districts that graduated them pay for remediation. Greene told me: “There should be a shared responsibility between the institution they came from and the individual that came through that institution. I’ve had high-school teachers tell me `My whole class will be required to take remediation.’ The students’ response is, `I’ll just take it in college.’“

In California, Republican Assemblyman Brooks Firestone and Assemblywoman Lynne Leach have sponsored bills to reduce remediation. Firestone staffer Matthew Hargrove explained to me, “What Brooks needed to do was make the K-12 system teach students to the level they need to get to college. He focused on students who were getting honors grades [but required remediation]. The bill (AB2631 in 1996, and AB37 in 1997) created a nexus. It was not to be punitive, but to make sure the college system got together with the K-12 system.”

Leach, who sponsored the Academic Warranty Program Act of 1998, told me, “Those high schools that were graduating students who need remediation upon entering college would have to produce a Remedial Education Reduction Plan; identify resources necessary to enact such a plan and procedures to monitor compliance with the plan.”

The proposals by Greene in Louisiana and Firestone and Leach in California passed in committee, but were held up by partisan Democrats from reaching the floors of their legislative bodies for a vote. All three lawmakers vow to bring back their proposals.

Savoie, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, explained that “The idea is to move remediation, which is now done at four-year colleges and universities, to `teaching institutions,’“ i.e., two-year schools, which previously had no remedial structure.

Savoie, pointing to a high correlation between the students borrowing money and needing remediation noted: “We are frustrating them, providing them false hope and putting them into debt.” He explained to me that due to Louisiana’s historical status as an educationally poor state, and the large number of students who are parents attending college part-time, state education officials track graduation rates during the course of 10 years. The state’s six-year graduation rate from four-year public schools is approximately 33 percent; the 10-year rate is 45 percent. By contrast, in wealthy New York, the four-year graduation rate at CUNY’s four-year colleges is 9 percent; the six-year rate is only 25.7 percent.

Unlike in Louisiana, there is no correlation between remediation and student debt in New York City, where thousands of remedial students pocket more than $5,000 in grants per year, after deducting tuition. Such generous aid attracts many students who are hostile toward learning. Meanwhile, night classes are filled with older, motivated, employed adults who pay twice for their education: first through their tuition, then through their taxes.

As remediation came to dominate institutions (especially community colleges) that often already were dumbed down, it caused a double-dumbing effect, whereby previous academic minimums were eliminated and the difference between remedial and college-level courses lost. And by consciously seeking out blacks and Hispanics, many remedial programs reinforced racist stereotypes of black and Hispanic inferiority.

Many of my predominantly Third World, immigrant students have told me that if they told their friends and family back home of the goings-on in New York’s public higher education system, “No one would believe it.”

Sadly, graduates of urban remedial colleges routinely are relegated to low-level jobs that a generation ago were done by high-school graduates. President Clinton and the progressives want everyone to attend college. Who will do the millions of manual-labor and service jobs requiring only basic literacy? Robots? Slaves?

The father of progressive education, John Dewey, called for constant innovation; today’s progressives offer no ideas for improving remediation and shun experimentation. Meanwhile, the heroic black educational tradition founded by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Carter G. Woodson set standards that put today’s progressives to shame. In addition to Dewey and DuBois, I make my composition students read the unfashionable Washington. Despite failing in his first three attempts at building Tuskegee’s kiln, the herculean founder of the Tuskegee Institute eventually taught his students to bake the bricks that made Tuskegee’s buildings.

Conversely, today’s “progressives” have regressed. These “no-can-do” types routinely excuse failure based on students’ color, sex, ethnicity or status as immigrants or mothers. For years progressive remediationists have not offered any ideas on improving remediation, and they privately acknowledge that few students benefit from remediation.

Whereas the justification for great public universities was the right of the talented poor to higher education and, indeed, the foolishness of society in squandering their talents, remediation’s defenders imply that the talentless poor have the same right. They do not. Nor do talentless educators.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

K-12 schools are chaotic, because of mandatory attendance. Depending partly on the socioeconomic makeup, their will be a large portion of students who are indifferent, but what's worse a large portion of students who are actively hostile to and disruptive of the learning process.

So many people leave high school with deficient learning, even if they really wanted to learn. There needs to be some place people can go as adults and get education in a calm, constructive environment.