Rhetoric vs. Reality
Colleges confront quagmire of issues associated with remediation.
By Kendra Hamilton
There’s no getting around it. Remedial education — also called developmental education — suffers from an image problem. The fact is all too evident at the macro level — the California State University (CSU) System, for example, expelled 2,009 students in January for failing to master basic math and English skills during their freshman year and won kudos from legislators and the media.
“Oh, yes, it’s a hot potato,” says Dr. Ansley Abraham, director of the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB) Doctoral Scholars Program of remedial education. “Nationally, about a third of the students entering college need remediation. Educationally, that’s probably higher than it should be, and emotionally, that’s unacceptable to a lot of people.”
But Dr. Hunter Boylan, professor and director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, points out that the hottest flashpoints in the debate over developmental education are limited to just two systems — the City University of New York system and the CSU system.
“Those cases get the lion’s share of the media attention,” Boylan explains, “but what goes unacknowledged and certainly unmentioned is the fact that, between 1990 and 2000, 32 states introduced legislation proposing rolling back or eliminating remedial education. And 27 of the 32 states defeated that legislation.”
That is to say, despite the overheated rhetoric — the accusations that remedial and developmental programs prevent students from graduating within four years, that too much financial aid goes to support the program, that taxpayers are, in effect, paying twice for education that should have occurred at the K-12 level — the vast majority of states considering elimination of the programs decided they were worth salvaging.
And the whys and wherefores of that apparent disconnect between rhetoric and reality have to do with the fact that “nothing is more poorly understood, period,” says Dr. Robert McCabe, president-emeritus of Miami-Dade Community College and a senior fellow with the League for Innovation in the Community College. And the misapprehensions begin at the most basic level.
First of all, McCabe says, “Nowhere in America is there a match between the requirements to graduate high school and the requirements to begin college work.”
Indeed, only 43 percent of America’s high school students complete a college preparatory curriculum, adds Boylan, while 65 percent go on to college. “So there’s a substantial percentage of students — 22 percent — who enter college without having taken the curriculum that would properly prepare them.”
Furthermore, SREB’s Abraham adds, some of the remedial numbers are composed of returning students — adults who have been out of school a year or more. And even the recent high school graduates are highly diverse. While many failed to complete a college prep curriculum and others completed the curriculum but had poor grades. Still others completed the curriculum and appeared to do well, but still couldn’t handle college-level work.
“That’s the group where we as educators need to take an especially close look,” Abraham says. “If the student has taken the requisite courses, and they’re still coming through needing remediation, we need to know what happened in that classroom, what happened in that school. We need to be asking the question, ‘Why, in spite of our best efforts, are they still underprepared?’ “
And this analysis doesn’t even begin to take into account the role of immigration and second language acquisition — or that of students with deep deficiencies.
Of course, many critics of the courses are quick to play the race card, pointing out that minorities comprise around one-third of those in developmental and remedial classes. These students are the ones stigmatized in debates about the “decline of standards” and “dumbing down the curriculum.”
But the converse of that statistic is that, “nationally, about two-thirds of the people in developmental courses are White,” Boylan points out. Yes, minorities are disproportionately represented compared to their numbers in the general population — but Whites are still the majority in such courses by far.
“It’s got nothing to do with affirmative action. It has to do with educational opportunity. Some students have to build their skills in order to be productive in college,” Boylan adds.
It also apparently has very little to do with costs. When politicians began clamoring about the cost of financial aid to remedial students back in the mid-1990s, the General Accounting Office undertook to study the issue. The study concluded the amount expended was “a single-digit number, and they wouldn’t save enough by changing anything to make it worth the while,” Boylan notes.
A second study by the Brookings Institution, authored in 1998 by Dr. David Breneman of the University of Virginia, provided a rough national estimate of the costs of remediation. Breneman found that the amount budgeted for remediation in the total higher education budget was around 0.9 percent.
“Think about it: spending less than 1 percent of the annual higher education budget to educate about a million students a year, half of whom are successful, complete their work and go on to productive lives,” says McCabe. “It’s the biggest bargain of all time.”
But some disagree that remedial education is a cure-all.
“The fact is that the vast majority of American universities would like to perceive of themselves as elite institutions that wouldn’t dare let underprepared students through their portals,” Boylan says. “They’d like you to think all their students are prepared. That’s probably true nowhere. But that’s why you’ll see a school like Berkeley taking great pride in the fact that it doesn’t offer developmental courses — meanwhile, there are 2,500 students being tutored in the learning center.”
The lack of remedial services has serious implications. Teacher training, Abraham says, “is a travesty. And it’s a problem throughout academia — it’s not limited to remedial courses.”
But remedial courses can suffer far more than most. “In many schools, (being relegated to remedial courses) is used as a form of punishment. It’s a clear signal that you’ve lost favor and your sentence is to go teach the remedial kids.”
Abraham adds with a sigh, “You almost can’t imagine a worse scenario. The person doesn’t want to be there, is on the outs with the department and probably wasn’t much of a teacher to begin with — that’s how they got in trouble. And now they’re being forced on the neediest part of the student population.”
Boylan says the issue is further complicated by the fact that professors who serve developmental students “are painted with the same brush: You must be the weakest faculty, the thinking goes. By the same token, if the faculty are saddled with multiple sections of the weak students, they’re too busy teaching, grading papers, tutoring and advising to participate in the traditional mechanisms by which one earns respect from one’s colleagues.”
“You may be a professor of English but if you’re teaching enough sections, you can’t write a paper for the (Modern Language Association journal) because you don’t have the time — and you can’t even write it on what you do (in developmental education) because no one at the MLA is interested.”
Unacknowledged bias leads not just to bad teaching practice, but also to bad policy. For example, in Florida, the state legislature has mandated that community colleges take up the burden of remediation. It’s a solution that makes sense given the community colleges’ extensive experience in the area.
“But then you get into the problem of articulation” from two-year to four-year campuses, Abraham says. “The data on articulation indicate that most students do not make the transition.” Given the disproportionate numbers of Blacks and Latinos who are being pushed into the state’s community colleges under such plans without any clear promise of being able to move into four-year institutions, “we’re getting into serious issues of access.”
The nation is at a stage where it can no longer afford either bad practice or bad policy. With manufacturing moving to the lowest-paying countries, America’s future competitiveness is inexorably linked to the knowledge industries, McCabe notes. It has been forecast that 80 percent of new jobs will require some postsecondary education. Tomorrow’s employees won’t be able to coast along following rote instructions or performing simple tasks; they’ll have “high performance” jobs that require them to reason their way through complex processes.
At the same time, McCabe says, “all our growth populations are underskilled —Hispanics and immigrants from Central America and Asia — and they’ll be coming into our schools at every grade level. So we have to assume that even with improvements in our programs, the volume of underprepared people is not going to get smaller — it’ll get bigger. Look at the community colleges in urban areas — as many as three-fourths of the students entering now are underprepared.”
The stakes are high — and getting higher. But there are signs that developmental education is beginning to emerge from the institutional shadows to which it has been relegated.
One of the most important shifts has been a change in terminology — moving away from the terms “remedial” and “remediation” and toward “developmental education.”
“We decided we’d define ourselves away from remediation because we are not, in fact, in the business of fixing people. The students we admit aren’t broken. What they simply need to do is find out how to utilize and capitalize on their strengths,” explains Dr. David Taylor, dean of the General College, University of Minnesota, where a series of innovative initiatives won the 2000 “Best Practices in Developmental Education” award jointly sponsored by the American Productivity & Quality Center and the Continuous Quality Improvement Network.
Taylor’s model program has contributed to the field in three key areas: research, including developing sponsored research studies and disseminating the results; working with special populations, including the disabled and the gay-lesbian-bi-transgendered communities; and multicultural education.
General College’s success and popularity with the general public allowed Taylor to fight off a serious challenge to its continued existence. In 1996, the president and provost, Drs. Nils Hasselmo and W. Phillips Shively, proposed a phaseout of the General College by the year 1999, citing its graduation rate and cost to the university system.
“The process was flawed — the data were flawed. We don’t, for example, graduate students,” Taylor explains. Taylor counterattacked with accurate figures, and when the dust settled after the yearlong battle that ensued, both the president and provost were gone, and Taylor was still standing. Indeed, he had the satisfying experience of having the new president, Dr. Mark Yudof, cite the General College as one of the reasons he was interested in the job.
Developmental education has come a long way just in the last half decade. There are proven approaches, a growing number of graduate programs and institutes, professional societies, notes Boylan — plus a growing number of undergraduate programs worthy of national recognition.
One of those programs is at Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, where in 1998 developmental course offerings were removed from the purview of academic departments and centralized within a single division with big dividends.
Prairie View is an open enrollment school, which means that “some of our students come in with a sixth-grade reading level — some with a 10th-grade reading level,” says Dr. Cheryl Snead-Greene, who heads the Division of Academic Enhancement (AE). But the picture in Texas is complicated by two factors.
The first is the Hopwood decision, in the aftermath of which the state legislature mandated that the top 10 percent of high school students be automatically accepted to Texas universities. The decision did nothing to reduce the number of underprepared students matriculating, Snead-Greene explains. “We have seen students who were in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes with total SAT scores of 450, 600. That’s total.”
At the same time, admission to all Texas universities is provisional depending on the student’s ability to pass the TASP (Texas Academic Skills Program) entrance exam, and that’s where Snead-Greene and the Division of Academic Enhancement come in. Their mission is to get the 850 students in the AE division through their developmental coursework, over the hurdle of the TASP test and into the general college population where they can begin accumulating credits that will lead to graduation.
In the 1998 reorganization, the number of courses in math, reading and writing was increased and the courses were re-sequenced, with the reading sequence coming first. Previously optional components of program — tutoring, developmental lab, academic advising — were made mandatory. Most importantly, oversight of the students was increased, so that fewer could fall through the cracks. All these changes — with the addition of math and reading resource specialists who were hired and supplemented with instructors dedicated to the AE division — have led to remarkable results.
Retention rates have risen steadily, starting at 52.3 percent in 1998, jumping to 57.1 percent in 1999 to 64.7 percent in 2000 and to 68.25 percent in 2001. Snead-Greene couldn’t be happier. “These numbers show that our students are sticking around — that they see our program as one that will get them through the TASP and prepare them to tackle college-level courses,” she says.
Such successes are rare, but their numbers are increasing as the “synergies” around developmental education increase.
Minnesota’s Taylor says the reasons for his success — and those of other top programs — are no secret. “Our philosophy is simple: You don’t create classrooms that are hostile. You warm those classrooms up so that every student can thrive,” he says.
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