Sunday, May 15, 2016

The College Remedial Course Hoax

This week the New York Times ran an editorial entitled Guess Who’s Taking Remedial Classes? In the editorial the Times cites a study by the “think tank” Education Reform Now that shows that many students from more affluent suburban schools are taking remedial courses in college and claiming that this study is proof that high schools are not doing their job. Diane Ravitch responded by identifying Education Reform Now as an arm of the pro-reform Democrats for Education Reform and chastised the Times for taking their report as gospel. “Jersey Jazzman” Mark Weber eviscerated the report in a thorough analysis on his blog in an article I highly recommend you read. Weber asks all the right questions of this report and of the Times editorial, but I would like to take my own look at the implications of college remedial courses, especially as they relate to four-year colleges. These courses, while initially well-meaning, are a fraud perpetrated on the college student.

The vast majority of four-year colleges accept students based on their qualifications, usually in the form of an SAT or ACT score, a high school transcript, and perhaps a college essay and some other factors like community service or demonstrated leadership ability. Some students who are accepted to college may not meet the academic standards of the institution, but other mitigating factors, including athletic ability, having a parent who attended the institution or having the ability to pay the tuition without financial aid may get them admitted. When a four-year college admits a student, they also should be making a commitment to ensuring that student graduates in four or five years.

With the growing number of students attending college since the 1960s, colleges found that not all students had the skills in reading, writing and mathematics that professors were expecting when they entered the classroom. The colleges responded by creating non-college credit remedial courses that students were forced to take, almost always because of some score they received on a college “placement” test. And so a cottage industry of remedial, non-credit courses was created on campuses across the country, often taught by adjunct faculty of dubious qualifications and most often completely separated from the for-credit courses that other students were taking.

The results were inevitable. Students began collecting huge tuition debt paying for courses for which they did not receive credit. Often these students had to take these remedial courses over and over again because they could not pass the exit exam, which was frequently another standardized test. The students never got the chance to feel like they were regular college students. Within a year or two these students, frustrated with their lack of progress, dropped out of school burdened with student loan debt and without a degree or good job prospects.

Colleges, certainly the four-year colleges, I am addressing here, should not have and did not have to go the remedial course route. The schools could have and should have known that reading and writing courses that are removed from the context of a real course have very limited impact. (I will not address math remedial courses here because it is outside my expertise, but I believe the same principles would hold.) Rather than place students in courses designed for writing improvement or reading improvement, the colleges would have been much better off placing these students in the regular classroom and then providing them with the support they needed to succeed in these courses.

That support can take many forms. The first form it should take is in professional development for college faculty that would help them make their courses more student friendly. Remedial courses were put in place, in part, because professors complained that students did not have the necessary pre-requisite knowledge for their credit bearing course, but often times professors did not have the requisite instructional skills to scaffold student learning; skills that can be learned and used in the classroom to great effect for all learners. Other supports that have proven to be effective include embedded tutors, upper level undergraduates who attend classes with freshman students and who provide group study sessions and learning assistance to the students, writing centers and subject specific tutoring.

When I started out as a freshman in college in 1965, I was not required to take a placement test. I was placed in the credit bearing College Composition 101 like every other freshman in my school. After one week in the class, it was clear to me that I was not yet a college level writer. I got a C- on my first paper. Many of my classmates did much worse. My college did not have a writing center in those days, so I buckled down, sought the help of my more grammatically and rhetorically minded friends and squeezed out a B by the end of the semester. I think any student accepted to a four-year institution should be afforded the same opportunity. Today, I would add that the college writing lab should be a regular part of instruction in College Composition I and that an embedded tutor in the class would be very helpful in providing struggling students with the support they need to perform well in the class.

For students who struggle with reading comprehension and vocabulary, a similar model could and should be followed. Instead of some decontextualized, non-credit bearing “reading improvement” course, students should be enrolled in a typical college freshman course with a heavy reading load like Psychology 101. Again, the professor would be trained in methods like Pre-Reading Guides, Selective Reading Guides, Anticipation Guides and vocabulary development activities to help students with the daunting reading load. Embedded tutors would be available in the classroom to review readings and assist students with understanding difficult concepts at weekly meetings. The writing center would be available to help students with papers for the course.

Professional development for freshman faculty, embedded tutoring and writing centers are three effective ways to help students become college level readers and writers. It is not so much that we should expect our high school graduates to be “college ready”, but that we should expect our colleges to be student ready. Four-year colleges need to recognize that very few students are truly college ready when they walk in the door, unless we consider college ready to be ready and willing to learn in a college environment with the help that the college has the duty to provide.

The existence of college remedial courses is not so much about the quality of the high school, as the New York Times article posits, but a combination of more and more students seeking a college education and colleges coming up with the wrong solution to a perceived problem. Charging students admitted to four year colleges for non-credit bearing remedial courses is fraud. Not only is it fraud, but it is ineffective. More effective approaches are readily available, if these colleges have the will to make them work.

Students have the responsibility to work hard, attend class, seek help and meet the expectations professors lay down for the course. In fact, these abilities have been shown to be much more important to completing college than a score on an SAT or placement test.

Two-year community colleges with open enrollment have a different student population and different challenges. I will address what should happen in these schools in a subsequent post.

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