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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The Only Way to Survive Trump is Together

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There are days when I feel like a broken man.

 

And it is Donald Trump who has broken me.

 

Not his political victories. Not the failures of his opposition.

 

But the very fact that this piece of shit is President of the United States – that fact sits on my brain like an insect I can’t swat.

 

On those days my belief in this country wavers and disappears.

 

 

Oh, I’ve always recognized its faults, how our reality hardly ever lived up to our ideals. But I also thought that the United States was populated by mostly good people who knew right from wrong.

 

To run this country we wouldn’t choose an obvious conman, a racist and sexist, a person of low IQ, a man with little to no experience, a reality TV star. We wouldn’t let him pick the next Supreme Court justices. We wouldn’t give him the power to pardon whomever he likes. We wouldn’t give him the ability to write almost whatever he wants into law through signing statements. And we certainly wouldn’t give him the nuclear codes.

 

But we did.

 

We did all of that.

 

Or we allowed it to happen by ignoring a broken electoral system that overturns the popular vote with frightening regularity.

 

So there he sits in the Oval Office – when he isn’t on vacation at Mar-a-Lago – like a smear of feces on the American flag.

 

Therapists call this feeling “Trump Anxiety Disorder” and I have it. Boy! Do I have it!

 

The D.C. Counseling and Psychotherapy Center has identified it as a “collective politically induced anxiety among patients.”

 

Apparently, Trump’s name comes up frequently in sessions with mental health professionals. Patients say they feel on edge because of the President’s ill-chosen, childish and undiplomatic words, fear of his bad decision making, and anxiety over his xenophobic and prejudicial policies.

 

Trump Anxiety Disorder is not yet an official diagnosis, but symptoms seem to include lack of sleep, a feeling of losing control and helplessness in an unpredictable political scene, along with endless negative headlines and excessive time spent on social media.

 

Elisabeth LaMotte, a therapist at the Washington, DC, center, said, “There is a fear of the world ending. It’s very disorienting and constantly unsettling.”

 

I’m not sure I fear that Armageddon is close at hand, but I certainly feel like the world I thought I knew is unraveling.

 

Fox News was quick to frame this story as a joke – those silly “libtards” are losing their minds over Trump. But it’s not just people on the left who suffer from the disorder, says LaMotte.

 

Many Trump supporters feel isolated from friends and family who don’t blindly follow their diminutive Furor. I guess it’s hard to pal around with someone who thinks it’s completely justified to separate children from their parents and lock them up in cages – unless you think the same thing.

 

Even the American Psychological Association (APA) has recorded a rise in anxiety since the 2016 election that increases depending on how political a person is regardless of affiliation.

 

The APA also noted that electronic news consumption increases that risk.

 

In my own case, my symptoms manifested physically on Election Day, itself.

 

I literally had a heart attack in 2016 after casting my ballot. And I had another one a short while later.

 

The first one may have had something to do with depression over the political options.

 

I didn’t know Trump would win. I thought the chances of it were infinitesimal. But I didn’t want Hillary Clinton, either.

 

I wanted Bernie Sanders, and since I thought the Democratic National Convention stacked the deck against him (and therefore voters) in the primaries, I voted for Jill Stein.

 

In the months since, I’ve run that decision over in my mind a million times.

 

Was I right? Was I wrong? Could I have given Trump the margin of victory with my one stupid vote?

 

When I examine all the information I had at the time, it still makes sense.

 

The media was telling us that there was no way Trump could win. Clinton was going to come storming into the White House and continue or worsen the neoliberal policies of Barack Obama.

 

As a school teacher, I was concerned that she would continue to wage war on public education – she would continue to boost charter schools and standardized testing while shrugging at funding inequity, increased segregation and the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

It’s not that I didn’t realize Trump would be worse. It’s that I didn’t think Clinton would be that much better.

 

But had she won, I don’t think I would be suffering the same anxiety.

 

We would have a sane and sensible leader who wouldn’t do anything much to make things better, but certainly wouldn’t be plunging us into an abyss. She wouldn’t betray every single American value while blatantly using her office for personal gain and gaslighting anyone who had the temerity to point out what was happening in plain sight.

 

So maybe some of it is guilt in my case.

 

Maybe I caused all this chaos. But I’ve looked at the numbers and that doesn’t add up.

 

Even if my position as a blogger who criticized Clinton (and Trump) convinced thousands of voters to cast ballots like I did, I could not have significantly affected the outcome.

 

But on those days of doubt and depression, I still feel guilty.

 

This is not the world I want to live in.

 

Things would be different if I thought there were any real hope of change.

 

Sure Trump may be defeated. If there’s a blue wave in the midterms, the orange one may be impeached. Or he may find it increasingly difficult to continue his corruption and be ousted in 2020.

 

But long term I don’t see much changing.

 

The Democrats are almost as corrupt as the Republicans.

 

Don’t give me this false equivalency crap. I’m not saying they’re the same. The Democrats are unequivocally better. But with the exception of social issues, their policies are almost the same as Republicans. The only difference is timeframe.

 

Republicans will destroy the world tomorrow. Democrats will destroy it next week.

 

And the system is just not set up to offer any challenge to the duopoly.

 

I desperately want to believe that insurgent progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Zephyr Teachout will somehow wrest control of the Democrats and steer the party back to real populist goals, but on most days it’s hard to keep that hope alive.

 

On those days it seems like the rich and powerful own our government and will never allow us to take it back no matter how many of us try to vote, no matter how often we take to the streets, no matter what we do.

 

We live in a world of shit.

 

And none of it will ever change for the better.

 

I don’t want to feel this way.

 

I still want to believe that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.

 

But on most days that feels like an illusion.

 

Is that a mental disorder? Or do I finally see the world for the way it is?

 

I have no answers.

 

Perhaps this article has no point.

 

I only offer it as a mark of solidarity.

 

If you’re feeling this way, you are not alone.

 

There are many more out there like you.

 

I don’t know how we get through this or even if we can. But this much seems certain.

 

If we are to survive, the only way is together.

 

So I send out this missive of hope and fear with all my love and a big virtual hug.

 

Be kind to each other. We’re all we’ve got.


 

For a peak at my views on more positive days, see HERE and HERE.


 

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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Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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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