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.


 

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Scott Wagner Wants to be Pa.’s Anti-Education Governor. Will We Let Him?

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Art by Sue Goncarovs

 

If there’s one thing Scott Wagner hates, it’s education.

 

He hates science. He hates schools. He hates teachers. And if students get in the way, he’ll hate them, too.

 

These are the qualities he thinks Pennsylvanians are looking for in their next governor.

 

The York Township Republican will challenge incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf on Nov. 6, 2018.

 

So who is this guy?

 

Wagner’s a college dropout who made a fortune starting a garbage hauling firm. He became a state senator four years ago after winning a write in campaign during a special election where only 17% of the electorate could be bothered to vote.

 

And ever since, he’s been consistent about one thing: he really, Really, REALLY hates teachers.

 

 

“We have 180,000 teachers in the state of Pennsylvania,” Wagner said in 2015. “If we laid off 10 percent of the teachers in the state of Pennsylvania, we’d never miss them.”

 

Let’s be clear.

 

Scott wouldn’t miss them. But the 1.75 million Commonwealth school children would.

 

 

Ever since the last Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, slashed funding by almost $1 billion a year to the poorest schools with the full help of a state legislature that is even now still under GOP control, our institutions of learning have been reeling.

 

We lost 27,000 education jobs, most of which were teaching positions.

 

That’s a deficit we still haven’t recovered from. Even today, state schools are staffed at a 10-year low. Class sizes are at an all time high.

 

Yet Wagner wants to fire even more teachers!?

 

That’s not the policy of a man who wants to help improve life throughout the state for all. That’s not the policy of a man who wants to help kids learn.

 

It’s the policy of a man who has a personal grudge against educators.

 

And his other legislative objectives?

 

Wagner wants to further slash education funding. He wants to spend whatever is left inequitably. And he really wants to help his heroes Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos enact school vouchers so business people like him can continue to cash in on children from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places between.

 

 

By contrast, in his four years in office, Gov. Wolf has pushed to increase education funding, pushed to spend it more fairly, and even cut the time it takes for students to take high stakes standardized tests.

 

 

The good news: voters throughout the Commonwealth have never had a clearer choice for governor.

 

 

The bad news: when has that ever stopped them from getting it wrong?

 

 

Here’s a couple of Wagner’s other big ideas cribbed from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and his buddies the Koch Brothers.

 

 

 

He Thinks Teachers Make Too Much Money

 

“We have created a special class in this state and the special class is the public sector union employee,” Wagner told Keystone Crossroads in a 2015 interview.

 

“Teachers are doing very well in this state,” he said. “People would be appalled if they knew what their teachers made, in certain areas.”

 

Unfortunately, Wagner has no idea, himself.

 

He keeps quoting a bogus salary figure that I’m not going to repeat. It’s not true statewide, it’s not an average, nor is it true in his home district.

 

In truth, the low end for teachers entering the field nationwide is around $30,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). So go to college, get a four – sometimes five – year degree including a rigorous internship of student teaching and you make a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage!?

 

However, Pennsylvania pays its teachers better than average. We have the 12th highest pay in the country, according to financial services outlet GOBankingRates which compiled average teacher salaries by state using 2015 federal data.

 

According to that data, Pennsylvania teachers make on average $63,063 per year. Of neighboring states, teachers in Maryland ($65,247) and New Jersey ($71,687) make more. Teachers in Ohio (59,063) and Delaware ($59,853) make less.

 

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Highest and Lowest Teacher Salaries – Source: GoBankingRates

 

But those numbers are deceiving. They’re averages. Districts serving the wealthy pay their teachers much better than those serving the poor. Actual pay ranges from $99,253 in the affluent Philadelphia district of Lower Merion to $27,592 at Wonderland Charter School in Centre Country.

 

As everywhere else, many teachers struggle to make ends meet working multiple jobs while others are well compensated.

 

 

No matter how you slice it, nationwide teachers’ salaries are 14% less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

 

In other words, if prospective teachers want to make more money, all they have to do is switch majors.

 

That may be part of the reason for our national teachers shortage. Not only have states like ours laid off tens of thousands of educators, many don’t stay in the field if given the chance. Across the country , 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!

 

We could take steps to ensure all teachers earned a living wage and even encouraged our best and brightest to enter the field. But, nah, Wagner thinks Pennsylvania already spends “enough” money on public schools.

 

As Governor, he would do whatever he could to win his personal crusade against teachers even if Pennsylvania’s school children were collateral damage.

 

 

He Wants to Eliminate Teachers Sick Days

 

Wagner has been vocal about eliminating benefits that educators earn, including sick days. He introduced a bill that’s still floating around in the state senate to strip sick days from the school code and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

 

So forcing sick teachers to come to school and spread the germs to children is fine with Wagner as long as it hurts his nemesis – those evil teachers.

 

He Wants to Cut Teachers Pensions

 

He also plans to end pensions for working educators, and even wants retired educators to give back 10% of the retirement they earned.

 

He’s right to want reform to the state pension system but disingenuous or misinformed about the cause.

 

Pennsylvania pension costs have increased primarily because our legislature made bad plans and bad investments that were upended by the crash of 2008. You don’t fix that by stiffing your employees. If you do that, no one will believe any promises the state makes and no one of any substance will want to work for the state.

 

He Wants To Pay Teachers Based on Student Test Scores

 

No kidding:

 

“There are teachers that will exceed expectations while teaching a classroom of 100 of the toughest-to-teach students. There are also teachers that would struggle to teach just one student at a time. I want the first teacher to make a small fortune, and I want the second teacher to find a new career that is better suited for him or her.”

 

So if you teach the best students, you should make the most money? And if you teach struggling students, you should be fired?

 

 

But It’s Not Just Teachers. He Hates Other Working People, Too

 

If there is a corner to cut, he wants to take it – especially if it screws a working person. As a state senator, Wagner even introduced a bill that would exempt school districts from paying laborers the “prevailing wage” on construction projects.

 

Cheaper labor, shoddier work. That’s surely a recipe for success in buildings housing school children!

 

 

He Wants to Disband Unions

 

Oh, but he’s not done.

 

 

The man who once compared the tactics of public employee unions – including those representing teachers – to those of Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin also wants to end tenure end tenure, seniority, and disband unions.

 

 

I’m sure reducing teaching to a career without benefits, workers rights or protections will do wonders for the educational quality students receive.

 

Teachers working conditions are students learning conditions. Putting children in a building that has fewer safety precautions because there’s no union to collectively bargain for them is a great way to cut costs. But parents aren’t thrilled about having their kids try to learn in a sweat shop filled with Trump brand Russian asbestos.

 

 

He Loves School Vouchers and Charter Schools

 

 

Call them education saving accounts, education tax credits, personalized learning accounts or opportunity scholarships. It doesn’t matter. Wagner loves them all.

 

“I support all school choice,” he said in an interview.

 

Charter schools, funding private and parochial schools with public tax dollars. He’s in for all of it.

 

So long as it hurts public schools and enriches private businesses without helping students learn at all.

 

Go ahead! Take scarce funding from public schools and divert it to programs with little to no accountability. Let private school operators fraudulently misrepresent enrollment data. Let them fail to provide safe and academically appropriate learning environments. Let them game the system in any and every way.

 

That’s what Wagner calls fiscal accountability.

 

It doesn’t matter that these schools don’t improve student achievement. Evaluations of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have all found no statistically significant differences in the academic achievement of voucher students compared to public school students. And recent evaluations of programs in Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana revealed that voucher students scored lower than their peers attending public school.

 

But who cares about facts? This is all ideology for Wagner.

 

Vouchers have a record of undermining student’s civil rights – especially students with disabilities. Private school students give up due process and other rights guaranteed in public schools. Private schools are allowed to discriminate by denying admission based on religion, sexual orientation, citizenship status, English language proficiency and disability. Private schools that enroll students with disabilities may decide not to provide the services or accommodations guaranteed to such students in public schools. Or they may charge parents extra for them. Moreover, there is nothing to stop them from segregating these kids from other children. And, finally, private schools often suspend or expel students without due process.

 

This may be Trump and Wagner’s ideal. But it is certainly not what Commonwealth voters want for their children.

 

 

 

He Wants to Get Rid of Many State Colleges

 

Wagner caused an uproar when he said the state’s 14 state colleges will not be around in four years. “So, for those of you who think your school’s going to be around four years from now, it isn’t going to be around,” Wagner said.

 

Fewer institutions of higher learning. Fewer opportunities to get a college degree. That sounds like the policy of a college dropout.

 

 

He Wants to Slash School Funding

 

Wagner has made no bones about this from day one.

 

This is a guy who took a television reporter on a helicopter tour of schools in his district in 2015 to highlight the fact that “we spend a lot of money on schools.”

 

“They think the solution is more money,” he said of Wolf and the Democrats. “Every time you do that the money disappears and the problem is still there.”

 

It’s like taking a bath, Scott. You can’t just do it once and be clean for the rest of your life. You need to bathe every day. One-time funding windfalls don’t work. You need equitable and sustainable funding revenues.

 

But that’s either too complicated for Wagner or he just doesn’t care.

 

He supported Gov. Corbett’s plan to decimate Pennsylvania’s schools. And he doesn’t think the culling should be over.

 

When asked point blank about Corbett’s cuts in 2011, he said, “Yes, I believe that Governor Corbett needs to stick to his plan.”

 

He’s said repeatedly that we spend “enough money” on public schools, while stressing the need for frugality and fewer regulations.

 

 

He Wants to Play with How Schools Are Funded

 

He’s an advocate for legislation that would eliminate school property taxes and replace them with increased state sales and income taxes.

 

True we need a better funding mechanism than local property taxes. But you can bet Wagner’s plan is worse than the current system.

 

It would lock funding inequities among Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts into place.

 

He Thinks Global Warming is Caused by the Earth Getting Closer to the Sun

 

 

Wagner is an incredibly stupid man who thinks he’s rather intelligent.

 

But of all the dumb or evil things that come spewing out of his mouth, this one has to be my favorite.

 

When asked about global climate change, he didn’t simply deny that it was happening. He had an alternative theory to why it was taking place.

 

It’s not business and industry or fossil fuels that is causing global temperatures to rise. He actually said that it’s because the earth is getting closer to the sun every year. Another cause? Human bodies on the planet are giving off enough heat to raise the global temperature.

 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a person who hates schools and teachers so much knows very little, himself.

 

These comments made him a national laughing stock.

 

His words were repeated on every late night comedy show across the country for giggles and guffaws.

 

The question is “Will the joke be on us come Election Day?”

 

It’s not “How dumb is Scott Wagner?”

 

It’s “Is Pennsylvania dumb enough to vote for him?”

 


NOTE: Special Thank you to Sue Goncarovs for the Wagner cartoon with which I began this piece. I love your work!


 

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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