The school on a hill.
The marble columns, wood paneled studies and ivy encrusted gardens.
It’s never really been a place for everybody. But in rhapsodizing the college experience, our lawmakers have pushed for universities to enroll an increasing number of students. The demand for free or reduced tuition – especially for low-income students – has meant more kids putting on a letterman jersey and giving it the ol’ college try.
Teenagers who wouldn’t dream of higher education in previous decades are going for it today.
And the result has been a greater proportion of incoming college freshman taking remedial courses before they can even begin the normal post-secondary track.
According to a 2017 report by the Hechinger Report, more than half a million students at two- and four-year colleges in 44 states had to take such courses.
This costs up to an estimated $7 billion a year.
So, as usual in our country, we’re looking for someone to blame. And look! Here’s our favorite scapegoat – the public school system!
The gripe goes like this: Incoming college freshman wouldn’t need remediation if the public schools had bothered to teach them correctly!
However, the argument ignores several important factors and jumps to a completely unearned conclusion.
1) Public schools don’t decide who is accepted at colleges. College admissions departments do.
If people in higher learning think all these teenagers don’t belong in college, don’t accept them. Period.
But that would mean fewer students, less tuition and forgoing the lucrative revenue stream provided by – surprise! – these same remediation courses!
We pretend that colleges are special places where honor and scholarship rule the day. It isn’t necessarily so.
They are run by people, and like anywhere else, those people can be ethical and egalitarian or petty and materialistic.
Colleges aren’t immune to small mindedness or the economic realities facing institutions of learning everywhere.
Like most schools, they’re starved for funding.
The state and federal government have slashed subsidies to colleges and universities just as they have to public schools. Colleges have to make up the shortfall somewhere.
So they enroll students who don’t meet their own academic standards and then charge them for the privilege of attempting to get up to snuff.
It’s a good deal. You get to blame kids coming in AND reap the rewards.
2) How exactly do we determine that these kids need remediation?
In many schools, they use standardized tests like the SAT or ACT to make this determination. Others give their own pretest to all incoming freshman and assign remediation based on the results.
You’d expect more from institutions of higher learning.
You’d expect them to know how inadequate standardized tests are at assessing student knowledge. After all, most of the mountain of studies that conclude these tests are worthless are conducted at the college level. However, it seems people in admissions don’t always read the scholarly work of their colleagues in the departments of education and psychology.
I remember when I was in college, several classmates were being pressured to take remedial courses but refused. It didn’t stop them from graduating with honors.
3) Let’s say some of this remediation actually is necessary. Why would that be so?
These are high school graduates. What has changed in public schools over the past few decades to increase the need for these additional services at colleges?
It seems to me the answer is three-fold:
1) School budgets have been cut to the bare bone
2) Schools have to fight for limited funding with charter and voucher institutions
3) Standardized testing and Common Core have been dominating the curriculum.
That’s a pretty simple axiom. I know business-minded number crunchers will extol the virtue of “doing more with less” and other such self-help platitudes, but much of it is nonsense.
You never hear them explain how cutting CEO salaries will mean corporations will run more effectively. It’s only workers and schools that they think deserve tough love and penury.
Look, schools with less funding mean fewer teachers. That means larger class sizes. That means it’s more difficult to learn – especially for students who don’t already come from privileged backgrounds.
None of this is bettered by the addition of charter and voucher schools sucking up the limited money available. We don’t have enough for one school system – yet we’re asking two or more parallel systems to exist on that same amount. And we’re stacking the deck in favor of privatized systems by prioritizing their funding and not holding them to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools.
It’s like deliberately placing leeches on a runners back and wondering why she’s started going so slowly.
Moreover, it’s ironic that the Common Core revolution was conducted to make students “college and career ready.” It has done just the opposite.
Narrowing the curriculum to weeks and months of test prep has consequences. You can increase students ability to jump through the hoops of your one federally mandated state test. But that doesn’t translate to other assessments. It doesn’t mean they’ll do better on the SAT or other college entrance exams. Nor does it mean they’ll possess the authentic learning we pretend we’re after in the first place.
The bottom line: if we really want to improve student academic outcomes in public schools, we need to fully and equitably fund them. We need to abandon school privatization schemes and fully support public schools. And we need to stop the obsession with standardized assessments, curriculum and – yes – even canned standards, themselves.
That might actually reduce the numbers of students who allegedly need remediation at the college level.
However, there is another aspect that we need to consider that is harder to remedy…
4) Developmental psychology.
Schools – whether they be post-secondary, secondary or primary – are built to meet the needs of human beings. And human beings don’t grow according to a preconceived schedule.
Just because you think someone should be able to do X at a certain age, doesn’t mean they’re developmentally ready to do so.
Speaking from experience, I was a C student in math through high school. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to excel in that subject and earned top marks.
I didn’t have to take any remedial courses, but I was forced to take a quantitative reasoning course as part of my liberal arts majors.
I’m not alone in this. Many people aren’t cognitively ready for certain concepts and skills until later. That doesn’t make them deficient in any way nor does it betray any problems in their schooling.
That’s just how their brains work. We can whine about it or we can accept human nature and do what we can to help students cope.
And this brings me to my final reason behind the college remediation trend – a problem that is more insidious than all the others combined.
5) The elitism behind the whole post-secondary system.
For centuries, higher learning has been seen as a privilege of the wealthy and the upper class. Sure a few exceptional plebians were let into our hallowed halls just to “prove” how egalitarian we were.
But college was never seen as something fit for everyone.
As such, the attitude has always been that students are on their own. Many who enroll will not end up graduating. And that’s seen as perfectly acceptable. It’s part of the design.
It’s the baby sea turtle school of education – thousands of hatchlings but few survive to adulthood.
However, if you really want to make college the right fit for an increasing number of students, you have to get rid of the elitist attitude.
If students come to college and need remediation, stop whining and provide it.
And it shouldn’t incur an extra cost from students, either. This should just be a normal part of the process.
If a patient comes to the emergency room with heart disease, you don’t penalize him because he didn’t eat heart healthy. You do what you can to help him heal. Period.
That’s how colleges and universities need to approach their students.
You know – the way public schools already do.
In summary, it’s not a case of colleges vs. public schools. And anyone who tells you differently probably has a hidden agenda – the standardization and privatization industry, for instance.
We need to support colleges and universities. We need to support public schools. Both need additional funding and political will.
However, colleges need to become more accepting and supportive of the students enrolled there. They need to meet them where they are and provide whatever they need to succeed.
Moreover, public schools need the autonomy and respect routinely given to college professors.
The answer is a transformation of BOTH institutions.
That’s how you make a better school system for everyone.
That or we could just keep grumbling at each other, forever pointing fingers instead of working together to find solutions.
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