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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Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does.

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My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades.

 

They don’t matter all that much.

 

The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

 

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened.

 

She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment.

 

I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

 

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed.

 

But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

 

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack.

 

Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework.

 

He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework.

 

So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores.

 

I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

 

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals.

 

In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating.

 

After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

 

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal.

 

According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80% of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

 

Common Core fanatics like Bill Gates and David Coleman probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously.

 

However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

 

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance.

 

We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

 

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

 

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score.

 

It also increases the motivation to cheat.

 

According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64% admitted to cheating on a test.

 

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension.

 

If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy.

 

I know this is heresy to some people.

 

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.

 

After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

 

Of course, some of us realize standardized testing doesn’t provide an objective measurement. It’s culturally and racially biased. Those test scores don’t just correlate with race and class. They are BASED on factors inextricably linked with those characteristics.

 

When the standard is wealth and whiteness, it should come as no surprise that poor students of color don’t make the grade. It’s no accident, for example, that American standardized testing sprung out of the eugenics movement.

 

Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing.

 

High stakes assessments like the SAT do NOT accurately predict future academic success.

 

Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or ACT tests don’t do better than kids who got lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.

 

Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.

 

Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.

 

However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

 

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

 

Yet even classroom grades have their limits.

 

I remember my high school graduation – sitting on the bleachers in my cap and gown listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches about the glorious future ahead of us.

 

Yet for each of those individuals, the future wasn’t quite so bright. Oh, neither of them burned out, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

 

In fact, when I went to college, I found a lot of the highest achievers in high school struggled or had to drop out because they couldn’t adjust. The new freedom of college was too much – they partied and passed out. Yet a middle-of-the-road student like me (Okay, I was really good in English) did much better. I ended up in the honors college with a double major, a masters degree and graduating magna cum laude.

 

And it’s not just my own experience. The research backs this up.

 

A Boston College study tracked more than 80 valedictorians over 14 years. These high school high achievers all became well-adjusted professional adults. But none of them made major discoveries, lead their fields or were trailblazers.

 

For that, you need someone willing to take risks.

 

The folks the researchers followed admitted that this wasn’t them. Many confessed that they weren’t the smartest people in their classes. They just worked really hard and gave teachers exactly what they thought they wanted.

 

So what’s the point?

 

Some people will read this and think I’m against all testing and grading.

 

Wrong.

 

I give tests. I calculate grades. And I would do this even if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. (Though I would throw every standardized test right in the garbage.)

 

I think grades and testing have their place. But they aren’t the end, they are a means to an end.

 

They are crude estimations of learning. They’re an educated guess. That’s all.

 

We need to move beyond them if we are to modernize our public schools.

 

Don’t get rid of grades and testing, just change the emphasis. Put a premium on curiosity and creativity. Reward academic risk taking, innovation and imagination. And recognize that most of the time there may be several right answers to the same question.

 

Heck other countries like Finland already do this.

 

For the first six years of school, Finnish children are subjected to zero measurement of their abilities. The only standardized test is a final given at the end of senior year in high school.

 

As a result, their kids have some of the highest test scores in the world. By not focusing on standards and assessments, they counterintuitively top the charts with these very things.

 

There’s a lesson here for American education policy analysts.

 

And that lesson is the title of this article.

 


 

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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Absurd Defense of Standardized Testing in Jacobin Magazine

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A bizarre article appeared in this Month’s issue of Jacobin – a left-leaning, even socialist magazine.

 

It was titled, “The Progressive Case for the SAT” and was written by Freddie DeBoer.

 

In it, the author attempts to explain why the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) – though flawed – is a more unbiased way to select which students deserve college admissions than indicators like K-12 classroom grades.

 

It’s all convoluted poppycock made worse by a baroque series of far left think tank connections, intellectual bias and mental illness.

 

In short, DeBoer argues that our schools are unfair, so we should embrace unfair high stakes tests.

 

I know. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

 

Let me slow it down a bit, premise by premise so you can see his point – or lack thereof.

 

The current education system privileges white affluent children, says DeBoer, so they have an easier time getting into college than poorer children of color.

 

Check so far.

 

Richer whiter kids often go to schools that are better funded than those that teach mostly impoverished minorities. Therefore, the privileged get smaller classes, wider curriculums, more extracurricular activities, more counselors, better nutrition, etc. – while the underprivileged… don’t.

 

Then DeBoer says that classroom grades are often dependent on the resources students receive. Richer whiter kids get more resources, so they often get better grades.

 

Still with you so far.

 

Therefore, he concludes, we need standardized tests like the SAT to help equalize the playing field. We need so-called “objective” assessments to counteract the “subjective” classroom grades.

 

But DeBoer admits standardized tests aren’t objective! They are also the result of resources – that’s why richer whiter kids tend to score better on them than poorer blacker kids!

 

The argument makes no logical sense.

 

Justifying one unfair system with another unfair system is beyond bonkers.

 

Plus DeBoer contends out of nowhere that classroom grades are more easily manipulated than the tests and thus the tests are more valid.

 

Wrong again.

 

Classroom grades are based on roughly 180 days of instruction a year for 12 plus years. The SAT is roughly one day. More if you retake it.

 

It is MORE difficult to influence 2,160 days worth of grading than 1 or 2 or 3. Not the other way round.

 

Moreover, classroom grades are tabulated by numerous teachers, many of whom have little or no contact with each other. Standardized test scores are tabulated by a handful of temporary summer workers who often collaborate on the scores.

 

Whether students get good or bad grades generally doesn’t affect a given teacher. However, low test scores are actually beneficial to testing corporations because they allow the company to make additional money by retesting and selling remediation materials to the district.

 

If one group is more subject to bias, it is those grading the standardized tests, not the classroom teachers.

 

He has a point that getting rid of standardized testing won’t by itself eliminate inequality. But doubling down on it certainly won’t either.

 

That’s just logic.

 

DeBoer seems to be ignorant of history, as well.

 

The SAT test didn’t just spring up out of the ground. It was written by people –  Psychologist Carl Brigham building on work by U.S. Army Psychologist Robert Yerkes to be exact.

 

Brigham devised the SAT in the early half of the 20th Century based on Yerkes’ and his own deeply racist eugenicist theories.

 

And when I say they were eugenicists, I’m not speaking in hyperbole. They truly believed that some races were just smarter, more moral and downright better than others.

 

“American education is declining and will proceed… with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive,” wrote Brigham in his seminal A Study of American Intelligence.

 

“No citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration,” wrote Yerkes in 1922.

 

And this idea was the foundation of their application of standardized testing, as Yerkes  noted a year later:

 

“The contrasting intellectual status of the white versus the negro constituents of the draft appear from table 3. Few residents of the United States probably would have anticipated so great a difference. That the negro is 90 per cent. [sic] illiterate only in part accounts for his inferior intellectual status.”

 

Yerkes eugenics Table 3

 

Brigham was basing his ideas on another test created by Yerkes, the Army Alpha and Beta tests.

 

As noted above, Yerkes  used test scores to “prove” black soldiers in WWI were inferior and thus more suited to menial service and the trenches while whites should be given better positions.

 

And Brigham continued this practice with his SAT test.

 

In both cases, the psychologists used standardized testing to back up a racist and classist status quo.

 

Yet it is this same SAT test that DeBoer is suggesting we keep because it reduces racial and economic bias!

 

Certainly the SAT has changed some since Yerkes time, but it hasn’t changed THAT much!

 

And that brings us to DeBoer, himself.

 

Who is this guy and why did an allegedly respectable publication like Jacobin print his crap theory?

 

DeBoer appears to be a very troubled individual.

 

Back in December of 2017, he published a blog post about his mental illness, almost being committed to an institution, the antipsychotic drugs he was taking and the break he would have to take from being a “public intellectual.”

 

I don’t mean to shame anyone who suffers from mental illness. But when someone offers such a bizarre policy suggestion, questions of stability arise.

 

Next, there’s DeBoer’s think tank connections.

 

On the same Website, DeBoer talks about “My anti anti-SAT take for the People’s Policy Project” – the same theory he expanded upon in his Jacobin article.

 

People’s Policy Project (3P) is a left-leaning think tank created by another frequent Jacobin contributor, lawyer and policy analyst, Matt Bruenig.

 

You may recall Bruenig. In 2015, he criticized schools that provide more resources to impoverished children by dubbing them “welfare schools.” He saw the inclusion of free healthcare, free meals, free pre-K, and other wraparound services as increasing the welfare state and making children and families dependent on the government for survival.

 

And, yes, like DeBoer, this is a guy who claims to be a far left Democrat.

 

This is all very troubling.

 

Sometimes we fall into the lazy attitude that high stakes testing, charter schools and other corporate education reforms are only championed by the right.

 

Certainly the left – or at least the far left – is immune to this neoliberal agenda.

 

You definitely wouldn’t expect to get a heaping helping of top down supply side school policy in Jacobin!

 

It just goes to show you how little policymakers on both sides of the aisle understand education and how ignorant they can be when we don’t force them to include the experts in the conversation.

 

I am, of course, talking about real, live classroom teachers.

 

Until we prize what they can tell us about education, we will continue to be led in circles by the ignorant.


 

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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