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Well, What Can I Say?

with 4 comments

If you get me upset enough, I just can’t shut up.

A while ago I posted about a book called Wannabe U, and complained–I believe legitimately–that the book had blinders on.  It  kept insisting that what was happening was the “corporatization” of the university, with the changes there driven by “corporate values.”

I tried to point out that what the book identified as “corporate” was in fact government–a fact that the writer could not ignore all the time, and every once in a while had to note.

This past week, however, I’ve run into an actual on the ground example of what I was talking about, and I think it’s worth going into.

The federal government has now handed down regulations–to go into effect with the Spring 2013 term–that require colleges and universities to restrict required remedial courses to one course per subject area.

The language is actually more convoluted than that, but what it comes down to is this:  if I admit you, I can require you to take ONE remedial course in English composition, but no more.

To those of  you who teach at even relatively selective institutions, this may seem like a regulation without an issue.  Whoever would need more than one remedial course to be brought up to speed? 

And if some students need more than one, surely that’s the fault of the  university–it isn’t teaching its remedial courses properly, and students aren’t learning the skills and materials they need to go on to college work.

Those of you who teach in a community college or any other kind of “open admissions” institution–that is, a place where you are accepted as long as you have a high school diploma, no matter what your grades or your courses or your skill levels or anything else–know what is about to go very wrong here.

In the program in which I teach, the regime has been to offer two levels of remedial composition instruction, plus the standard college composition course.

Remedial courses cost as much as regular college courses, but they do not result in credit hours towards graduation.

On entry to the university, students are required to take an Accuplacer test.  The results of this test determine whether the student must begin with Phase 1 Remedial, or Phase 2 Remedial, or with the regulat college course.

A student required to take Phase 1 Remedial has been required to pass it with at least a C, and then to go on to Phase 2 Remedial and pass that with a C before going on to the regular course. 

A student who starts in Phase 2 Remedial must pass it with a C before going on to the regular college course.

As you can imagine, students who are placed in a Phase 1 Remedial course have a significant expense added to the cost of their college education.

This is exacerbated by two facts:

First, students who place in a Phase 1 Remedial course in one subject almost always place there in other subjects, and especially in mathematics.  That means they may rack up the cost of anywhere from four to eight remedial courses that they must somehow pay for even though those courses do not count toward their college degree.

And second, the students who place this low on the academic skill scale are almost always paying for those courses with financial aid, Pell Grants and very expensive college loans.

In some ways, you can see what the federal regulators are trying to grapple with here.

Something seems to be wrong.  All these students graduated from high school, some of them with very good grades–although their grades on standardized tests, if they took them, tend to be rock bottom low.

Still, the students graduated, and that must mean something–mustn’t it?  Surely colleges and universities should be able to bring students up to speed in a single semester.

Like I said, if you teach at even a relatively selective university, this may sound like common sense to you.  You may even share the suspicion of federal regulators that the only reasons universities demand even more remedial work is to plump up their bottom lines.  They can charge and charge and charge and just suck in the money.

If you teach in an open enrollment instution, t hough, you know nobody is sucking in the money.  You spend every day facing students who never passed Algebra 1, never mind the full four year math course that most colleges insist on as the foundation for things like calculus that are required for graduation.

You also know that kids show up at composition class unable to read and comprehend even a short and simple newspaper article.  They are unable to write a standard English declarative sentence, and they can’t punctuate it, either.

You get things like:

My Mom teached me so then I swimmed all over the pool but they just be judging me all the time.

And that sentence is better than the original I tried to copy, because it seems I can’t stop unconsciously correcting the spelling.

It’s also three or four levels above what you’ll usually see in Phase 1 Remedial courses.  You can at least tentatively figure out what it means, for instance.  And it’s actually a sentence and not a sentence fragment.  And its use of slang is minimal and its use of “cuss words” nonexistent.

The simple truth is this:  no, it is not possible to fix a literacy problem that profound in a single semester.

I am increasingly of the opinon that it is not possible to fix it at all if you wait until the kid is 18 or older to do it.

There are windows of opportunity here that were missed long ago and cannot be recaptured.  The time to begin to address these problems was kindergarten, and the means ones universally rejected by elementary school teachers–by insisting on standard English in school, period, correcting students every time they make a mistake when they speak in class or in the presence of the teacher at recess or lunch. 

Start there, like that, and then carefully correct all written work with a red pencial and an attitude of fantacism, marking every single mistake over and over and over again until it finally sinks in.

That is not, of course, what is happening in our elementary schools, our middle schools, and our high schools.  What is happening is “holistic grading,” keeping carefully quiet about mistakes so that students don’t feel disrespected or like failures, and holding fast to the conviction that students will “just learn it” (sort of by osmosis) from what they read.

We’ll all just  ignore the fact that these kids do not read ever, even when reading is assigned to them, and no matter what reading is assigned to them.

(I want to stop in its tracks, right here, the suggestion that if we just gave these kids “interesting” reading in the genres, they would get excited about reading and go on to become readers.  No, they wouldn’t. 

In order to do that, they would have to open the books and try to read them, and they won’t.

They won’t do it because they have no idea what the words mean.  They haven’t been put off by a Required Reading List, because they wouldn’t have read that either. 

If you gave them an exciting adventure story and stood over them to make sure they looked at the pages, they would not be able to tell you what the story was about.

Whenever I get into discussions like this, I have a sinking suspicion that a lot of you REALLY don’t know how illiterate these kids are.)

So no, these regulations will not fix the problem these kids have, because by the time they get to college the problem is not fixable for most of them.

What they will do is put an end to college as the standard we can use to make sure out kids have at least the skill level of a sixth grade education.

Because that is, of course, what we’re doing now.  We pretend that a high school diploma means that kids have certain skills.  Then we provide the remedial courses that are required because they don’t have these skills.

Give this about five years, and what you’ll find is employers casting around frantically to find another measure to use to indicate that kids of that level of skills.

We may start off doing something sensible, like flunking more students who can’t do the work–but it won’t last.

The disparate impact of college requirements is already huge.  Providing only one semester of remedial work will doom a huge minority of kids from the off, and those kids will be disproportionately minority.

So we’ll resort to what we already resort to in some open admissions places–holistic grading again, passing kids out of compassion or because we think they worked hard, whatever.

But the skills are the skills, and increasing numbers of “college” graduates won’t have them.

And when employers realize this–as they are already realizing it, only for a smaller segment of students–they’re going to have to find something else to do.

And that will be the total and final destruction of the value of a “college degree.” 

And then you know that student loan debt bubble?



Written by janeh

December 8th, 2012 at 11:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Well, What Can I Say?'

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  1. Welcome back Jane! I’m glad to have you talking to us again.

    First a disclaimer. I graduated from high school in the US in 1954 and have had nothing to do with the US schools since then. I moved to Australia in 1971 and have never been involved with Australian schools. What Jane wrote about is news to me. I even had to look up Pell grants.

    But perhaps the situation she is describing explains something about Australian TV that has been puzzling me. We have “current affairs” programs that all have the same format. Some person is complaining about a problem with a company. The interviewers spend all their time with the person. Then at the end they say “The company will not return our calls.”

    Meanwhile I’m thinking “there are always two sides to an argument. Of course the company won’t comment. Their lawyers won’t let them.”

    Now I have realized that someone who graduated from high school in 1980 has been out of school for thirty years. Those TV shows are aimed at the sort of people that Jane is describing.


    8 Dec 12 at 7:59 pm

  2. Umm. You’re quite right? You–and whatever D of Ed genius came up with this one–might take a look at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School (AKA “West Point Prep.”) It’s for bright kids with a high school diploma–educated well above the level you describe: you have to be to get into the Army–but not up to the standards of a West Point Plebe. They get a full year of nothing but English and Math. If they need Science, that’s done in the summer.

    Might be worth noting that–a few career fields apart–a high school diploma is necessary but not sufficient to get you into the Army. If you have a HS diploma, but can’t pass the standardized written tests, you’re still a “no-go.” But most speicalties won’t take a GED regardless of score if they can help it: they fail as training and disciplinary problems more than a HS grad with the same test scores.

    I suspect part of the problem here is the separate worlds involved. The D of Ed official making the rules never saw a high school as bad as the ones those kids attended, and doesn’t really believe they exist. She thinks that the diploma, like the Slobovian Rasbucknik, must be worth SOMETHING. And of course, she was raised to despise “for profit” schools. It’s vulgar to teach for money and SO much nobler to teach for–can anyone explain to me WHY Smith Wellesley and Harvard teach? I checked all three web sites, and it wasn’t clear. (Does anyone else remember the old story of the Spaniard and the Swiss?)

    On the general problem of reading assignments–again, you’re quite right given those students. If they haven’t learned to read at the fourth or fifth grade level, then it’s nonsense to discuss what they ought to read–other than, perhaps Dick and Jane. My pleas for a variety of assigned readings are all based on the idea that someone somewhere had already done the elementary teachers’ job.

    As for the education bubble–keep a mental image of ten thousand educational administrators backed up by even more lawyers, trying frantically to keep the bubble inflated and patch the leaks. A sufficiently determined government can keep inflating a bubble for a very olng time.

    But of course not forever.


    8 Dec 12 at 11:07 pm

  3. What JD said, Jane. A hearty welcome back.

    I have two school-age grand-daughters, cousins, one 12 and just finishing primary school, and the other 10 and about to enter fifth grade. (Our school years here in Oz run pretty much to the calendar years, because summer occurs December-February in the Southern Hemisphere – seemingly a little known fact in certain geographically-challenged quarters. :-))

    Both girls’ parents are university graduates, and both are surrounded by books, indeed virtually smothered with them at home. Their parents are avid readers as are their younger siblings to the best of their ability. The 10 year old reads everything she can get her hands on and keeping up with her demand for books is a significant family expense because none of us likes to be dependent on the rather patchy library systems here. If we want a book, we tend to buy it and generally keep it forever, “forever” being defined as pretty much until the floors begin to sag under the weight of the bookcases.

    But the 12 year old, who to date has been exclusively educated in a very expensive private single-sex school, is coming out of primary school very close to being functionally illiterate. Her parents – both very busy senior executives – have only just discovered this when told at a parent-teacher conference that their daughter’s problem would mean that she would struggle to cope with high school.

    There is an underlying eyesight issue which may well have been the cause of all this. She had/has an eye condition which effectively limited her ability to scan a page, but her parents had believed it to have been alleviated if not fully corrected by special glasses. Unfortunately, being a young girl, she used every alibi she could find to justify not wearing her glasses. The issue was camouflaged even further by the fact that she can mechanistically read whatever is put in front of her.

    Unfortunately, however, there the comprehension process stops. She seems to be completely unable to derive the meaning of the string of words she has been reading. They have pretty much got the summer holidays to solve this problem, and I have no idea how they are going to do it.

    If this can happen in a well-educated, relatively wealthy, resourceful and highly motivated family, it must be a real problem lower down the social ladder. It won’t be solved by bureaucratic diktat.


    8 Dec 12 at 11:27 pm

  4. Nice to see you again.

    I don’t think our system has quite reached that extent of incompetence, although it does fail many students. And the friends I had who were, until recently, teaching in post-secondary tended to teach second or third tech courses, and although they had their failures, the students you describe wouldn’t have gotten that far. And the post-secondary students I now know personally tend to be the cream of the crop.

    I do feel for Mique’s grand-daughter, though. I spend some time a few years back helping an immigrant with her English, and although she was bright and educated in her own language, I don’t think I ever got her past the stage of reading individual words instead of comprehending phrases and sentences. I don’t know how you’d do it, but it must be a common problem so there must be information out there on how to address it. Admittedly, the education research literature leaves a lot to be desired, but there’s some gold among the dross.


    9 Dec 12 at 8:35 am

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