College Remediation is Less About Bad Students Than Academic Elitism

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Ah, college.

 

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.

 

If you cut funding to schools, they won’t be able to prepare students as well.

 

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.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

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.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Wagner Spouts Trumpian Lie About Education at Gubernatorial Debate

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The defining moment of Pennsylvania’s one and only gubernatorial debate wasn’t made by incumbent Tom Wolf or his challenger Scott Wagner.

 

It was made by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

 

At least it was made by him seven years ago.

 

Before voters overwhelmingly choose the Democratic Wolf to replace him, Corbett told a whooper about his administration and education funding – namely that he DIDN’T cut almost $1 billion from the poorest schools in the Commonwealth.

 

Yes,  ten thousand teachers were furloughed. Class sizes ballooned. Children literally died for lack of nurses.

 

But Corbett wanted us all to believe it wasn’t him or his administration that took that money away.

 

It was untrue then, and it’s untrue now.

 

Yet that didn’t stop Wagner from dusting it off before 1,700 people and moderator Alex Trebek at the annual Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry dinner in Hershey:

 

Trebek: What you have not mentioned is education suffered immensely about seven years ago when Gov. Corbett knocked off about a billion dollars. And…

 

Wagner: That’s totally false.

 

Trebek: Oh, it’s false.

 

Wagner: That’s totally false. Those were federal stimulus dollars. Gov. Wolf went around and told that. It was a lie. Gov. Corbett … (Clapping)… And the stimulus money came in during Gov. Rendell’s administration. And so Gov. Corbett’s here tonight. People need to know that Gov. Corbett did as much for education as really any governor. (Clapping) And he needs to be remembered for that. He didn’t cut the billion dollars. It was a billion dollars of stimulus money that came in and they were told – the education system – I wasn’t there – Don’t hire teachers, don’t… They did all that. Guess what? Here’s the problem with the system, Alex. The billion dollars. It’s gone. We have nothing to show for it.”

 

Here’s the crux of the bedtime story he’s telling.

 

The big bad federal government gave us money, and when that money was spent, we didn’t have it anymore. So what mean ol’ Gov Wolf calls a budget cut was no one’s fault.

 

The problem is it’s baloney.

 

The federal government DID give Pennsylvania stimulus dollars for its schools for one-time infrastructure improvements. However, the state legislature reacted by reducing the amount of state money it used to fund schools at the same time forcing districts to use the stimulus for operating costs.

 

It’s as if someone gives you a couple hundred dollars for your birthday and then your boss stops paying you your salary. That may work this week, but next week you need your paycheck. Otherwise you don’t have money to pay the bills.

 

Your boss can’t say to you: I’m not cutting your wages. Look I gave you just as much money this week as last week.

 

That won’t fly. But it’s exactly what Corbett tried to sell voters almost four years ago and they weren’t buying it.

 

And now Wagner is pulling out the same moldy lie, brushing off the flies and trying to pass it off as the truth.

 

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This is troubling for two reasons.

 

First, it shows Wagner is as deceitful as his heroes Corbett and Donald Trump.

 

Second, it shows he’s playing from the same morally bankrupt playbook.

 

Corbett didn’t stop at saying he never cut the money he cut. He went so far as to say he actually RAISED school funding!

 

That’s like urinating on someone and telling them it’s raining.

 

And he did it with dishonest accounting – lumping pension funds for teachers in with classroom funding and pretending they were all the same.

 

He took a bill that was already due (pension costs) and pretended like that money was paying to run the state’s classrooms.

 

It wasn’t.

 

So children throughout the keystone state suffered and some even died.

 

Apply that to Wagner’s rapidly changing position on education funding.

 

He has long been an advocate for slashing school budgets. In fact, he was a popular surrogate for Corbett when this whole catastrophe was going down.

 

But now that his campaign has seen how unpopular that position is, very recently he’s changed his tune.

 

Suddenly he says we should increase education funding.

 

And good for him.

 

However, if he’s using the Corbett playbook, it seems that “increase” really won’t be anything of the sort.

 

It will just be more creative accounting and fantasy storytelling. He’ll pay for pensions and say he’s increasing school funding. Or maybe he’ll fudge something else from column A and pretend it’s funding column B.

 

It’s disingenuous, dishonest and Pennsylvanians aren’t going to put up with it.

 

Perhaps that’s why Wolf is leading in the polls.

 

Wagner may have found a way to get his supporters into the debate hall – they certainly clapped loud at his points – but they are a minority among voters.

 

I wish Trebek had called him out on it.

 

I wish Gov. Wolf had challenged him.

 

But time was running short and Wagner still had to complain about a college swimming coach with too high a pension, and he had to whine about mean old Wolf demanding the Marcellus Shale industry pay its fair share of taxes.

 

There were plenty of other sparks at the debate.

 

Wagner raged about this and lied about that. He thinks running a state like Pennsylvania is like managing his $75 million garbage hauling company. But if given the chance, it will be our children’s future’s that are left in the trash.

 

Meanwhile, Gov. Wolf looked like the adult in the room, soberly explaining the improvements he’d overseen in his term in office (a balanced budget, healing some of the Corbett education cuts, etc.) and outlining where we need to go in the future.

 

Every time Wagner slammed him for taking support from unions, I wished he’d spoken up. But he just let it pass like Casey at Bat looking for a perfect pitch.

 

“You keep talking trash on unions,” he’d say. “Yeah, many of my supporters are union workers, union teachers, nurses, letter carriers, construction workers. Yes, I’m supported by working people and I support them in turn. Labor is the backbone of this nation and that’s true here in Pennsylvania as it’s true everywhere.”

 

But, no. He didn’t say that.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I think Pennsylvania voters have a clear choice here – the sane, sensible Wolf vs. the blowhard and capricious Wagner. But how I wish Wolf had shown more fight!

 

The only thing the media seemed moved to report, though, were the antics of Trebek.

 

Twitter squeaky wheels thought the Jeopardy host’s moderation was weird. I’ll admit a tangent into the Catholic church and pedophile priests may not have been necessary. But he made the entire event more watchable and he called out Wagner’s lies more often than not.

 

The question is: What will voters do in November?


Watch the whole debate HERE.


 

Here’s a video I made about Corbett’s budget cuts – a story so simple even Wagner and Corbett could understand it:


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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