Monday, August 18, 2014

Remediating remediation, Part I

GIVEN: There will always be a gap between what high school graduates know and can do and what college professors expect them to know and be able to do.

GIVEN: This will always be true.

GIVEN: College remediation is one of many possibilities to bridge the gap for high school graduates and college professors.

GIVEN: College remediation can be expensive in time and money for students; it can also be discouraging and psychologically debilitating for students and frustrating for professors.

GIVEN: Academics aren't the only concerns for incoming college freshmen.

Franky B takes the ACT and gets a low score in both math and English. That means he's going to have to take remedial courses in both subjects. Not only will he have to enroll in at least six non-credit-bearing hours (they won't count towards graduation), but he will not be able to take more than 12 hours that semester. If half of his hours are for remedial courses, he's automatically on track for the 5-year plan to graduate, unless he can make up time during the summer. When he arrives on campus for freshman orientation, his adviser reviews his application materials and see that he has a strong GPA and good grades in English and above average grades in math. Curious about the situation, the adviser has a conversation with Franky. At the end, they decide to drop him from the remedial courses and put him in credit-bearing courses with the understanding that Franky will get a tutor for both math and English, just in case. The adviser also talks with Franky about the value of going to the on-campus Writing Center for all writing assignments, not just for those in his English classes. Franky feels fairly confident but worries that his friends might be a distraction for him.

Elise G takes the SAT and gets borderline scores. Because of her borderline scores, she chooses to take the placement tests on campus. Her English placement test makes it clear she needs remediation while she is able to register for freshman-level math courses. Because she has to take at least one remedial English course, she can register for only 12 hours. One of the courses is History of Civilization, which requires a lot of reading. She learns her professor for that course is one who requires a lot of writing. She hopes she can keep up with the work because she has to have a part-time job to help pay for college. Elise feels anxiety gnawing at her when she goes to her first class.

Maria M takes both the ACT and the SAT. She does reasonably well on one and okay on the other. Maria isn't accepted by any of her preferred schools so she decides to go to her local community college to get her AA. That way, because Maria, like many undergraduates, has to work to help pay for college, she'll be able to work and go to school with a clear focus on doing well. She knows her local community college has a good reputation and that she'll be able to get tutors as she needs. Maria starts school with confidence.

And so it goes.

Carol Burris, an award-winning principal, writes compelling about the failure of the current college remediation model. As indicated in her writing and the studies to which she refers, remediation is no guarantee of success in college. Shouldn't be. But the mechanisms by which students are diverted to remediation or choose to take remedial courses are not consistent, and they are not foolproof.

As a freshman writing teacher, I had students whose test scores permitted them to sign up for ENG 101. With the very first writing assignment I knew which of those students needed to go to the Writing Center every single day and/or who would need lots of coaching from me. By the same token, I had an inkling of which students could have skipped ENG 101 and gone straight into ENG 102. Because of add/drop policies and in fairness to students and professors once the semester got underway, we had to act fast if we were going to move students anywhere.

It's important to recognize that remediation is a real problem. Nearly 60% of all high school graduates need some remediation. According to some data, as many as 80% of high school graduates are not ready for college in one or more content area.

It's also important to recognize that the slide towards remediation begins in elementary school. This is NOT to blame any level of K-12 teacher or administrator. It is to acknowledge that the gap between what kids know and are able to do when the graduate from high school is substantial.

It's also important to remember that community colleges were once the epicenter of remediation as well as other educational options that were typically not part of the university offerings. As community colleges have shifted their missions and their roles, remediation has proven to be of less interest to many institutions and for practical as well as other reasons.

Figuring out how to remediate remediation is no small task, but one I'm going to try to tackle in one (or more) of my next blog posts. Your suggestions and insights are welcome!

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