Remedial education

Essay says remedial reform efforts face serious limitations

Members of the professional community in developmental education agree with many studies suggesting that simply placing students in remedial courses is an inadequate response to the problems of underpreparedness among entering college students. They would further tend to agree that the current process of identifying and placing underprepared students is flawed and that the entire process of assessing, advising and teaching them needs reform.

But if there is a “solution” to the remediation education “problem,” it is vastly more complex than many reform advocates and most policy makers acknowledge.

It will require that community colleges change the way they do remediation. It will also require that they address non-academic issues that may prevent students from succeeding, improve the quality of instruction at all levels, revise financial aid policies, provide better advising to students at risk, integrate instruction and support services, teach college success skills, invest in professional development and do all of these things in a systematic manner integrated into the mainstream of the institution.

It may be useful for reformers to collaborate with the developmental education professional community, a community that has not only supported but invented many of the innovations reformers have proposed.  Instead many policy makers are ignoring these professionals and requiring colleges to adopt unproven innovations disconnected from institutional systems or existing innovations. .

Policy makers often fail to understand that the majority of remedial courses are taught by adjunct faculty who, although they may possess content expertise, often have no idea how to teach underprepared students. Many of them do not understand the principles of adult learning and development and they are offered no support or training to help them learn techniques to teach these students. Although learning laboratories, tutoring and other support services are often available, few systematic efforts are made to ensure that those enrolled in remedial courses participate in them. The services designed to help students succeed in course work are seldom integrated into the courses they are supposed to support. In addition to this, underprepared students are often placed in some sort of computer-based or online remedial course, frequently without assessing their levels of computer access or literacy.

During the past decade, several research studies of varying quality have indicated this model of remediation doesn’t work -- that too few students complete it -- and those who do often fail to graduate. This has stimulated a nationwide discussion of remediation and a large number of foundation-funded initiatives to reform it.

Historically, reform efforts in remediation have been only moderately effective. Much of this is due to the fact that alternative models were thought to be too expensive and more labor-intensive than the traditional remedial model.  Given the limited funding with which most community colleges operate, those thoughts were probably accurate. Furthermore, many community college leaders had no idea how poorly remediation was working and there were few incentives to find out. It was only after various groups began to measure the outcomes of remediation during the early years of the 21st century that we realized the poverty of those outcomes. Encouraged and supported by foundation funding, colleges across the country then began to experiment with new ways of providing remediation to the large numbers of students who needed it to be successful.

Meanwhile, new players entered the remediation reform game, usually without consulting any of those who were already advocating the reform of remediation. These new players included policy makers, foundation officers, politicians and organizations that sustained themselves with government and foundation grants -- few of them with any knowledge of or experience with underprepared students. Some of these individuals and organizations began the scientific study of remediation in an attempt to find data that might provide pathways to more successful remediation. Others simply announced that they had found the pathways.

The reformers have provided policy makers with an array of proposed solutions possessing various degrees of promise, research support and likelihood of success. The fact that there is often little research evidence supporting the proposed solutions appears not to bother either the policy advocates or the state legislators they lobby. There are two other major shortcomings with contemporary reform efforts in remediation. The first is that most reform advocates are promoting piecemeal, non-systematic change. The second is that none of the proposed reforms address the underlying causes of poor performance among underprepared students.

Many contemporary reformers are promoting specific techniques such as embedded support services, modular instruction, contextualized instruction, computer based instruction or accelerated remedial courses. Some are even advocating that remedial courses be eliminated entirely and replaced with these techniques. What these reform efforts fail to acknowledge, but what experts in the field know well, is that no innovation is going to be successful in a community college unless the institutional system into which it is being introduced also changes. There are those who contend that remediation is broken and needs to be abandoned. Equally likely, the campus system in which remediation takes place is broken and simply adding an innovation to the system or removing remedial courses from it will not fix anything.

Most community colleges do not have the resources to do the sort of intrusive academic advising needed by underprepared students. Academic support services in the community colleges are not systematically connected to the courses they are supposed to support. There is little focused faculty development for those working with underprepared students. The system provides few rewards for working effectively with underprepared students. There is insufficient communication between those who teach remedial courses and those who teach college-level courses. There are, of course, some exceptions to these circumstances, but they exist only at a minority of community colleges. Innovations introduced into environments such as described here are unlikely to be successful because the environment itself mitigates against success.

Furthermore, many of the proposed innovations fail to address the conditions that cause students to be underprepared. There is a naïve assumption among many policy makers that if we just find different ways of presenting the material to students, they will do well in college. If we are to increase success rates for underprepared students, we will also need to address the reasons why minorities and the poor and first-generation students perform poorly in the first place.

If policy makers are so convinced that they have a solution to remediation, then they should at least have the integrity to build evaluation plans into their policies and reforms. Ongoing systematic evaluation is a critical component of successful innovation which has been advocated in the field of developmental education for over two decades. If it turns out that the policies and reforms are successful, there will be proof that others can use to improve their programs. If it turns out that they are not, then the evaluation data can be used to inform the revisions of policies and innovations.

Thus far, few policy makers have bothered to build evaluation plans into their reform plans. In so doing, they are making the same mistake that let the shortcomings of traditional remediation remain for so long. They are not bothering to look at the results of what they have put into place, perhaps because they, too, have no incentives for doing so.

Hunter R. Boylan is the director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University. 

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Essay on how to fix remedial education

Remedial education and the instructors who provide it are critical to maintaining college access and increasing student success, but the traditional model deployed by most colleges and universities is badly broken. Complete College America’s call for reform is not about the total elimination of remediation. It is about transforming the system to ensure more students succeed.

The numbers are staggering: of the up to 60 percent of community college students who are assigned to remediation, 10 percent graduate within three years. Even given four years for a two-year degree, chances remain slim that these students will complete college. Further, 70 percent of students placed into remedial math never even attempt a college-level gateway course within two academic years.

These numbers -- which are provided by the campuses and states -- are indisputable evidence that we can no longer defend the status quo when it comes to remedial education. They are also a poignant reminder that we must not measure our success by whether students pass remedial education courses alone, but instead implement models that dramatically increase the number of students who pass gateway college-level courses and ultimately earn a degree. Doing any less would be to deny millions of Americans access to the one proven means to finding a well-paying job and entering the middle class -- a college credential.

In working with the 34 members of our Alliance of States, Complete College America has sought out the strategies and best practices that most effectively address these challenges. Most importantly, these innovations have been developed and implemented by college faculty who are passionately committed to student success.

The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), developed by longtime community college English instructor Peter Adams, has doubled success rates for students, with 74 percent completing gateway courses in English in one semester. Likewise, the Structured Assistance program, developed by Tristan Denley when he was at Austin Peay State University, provides students who previously required remedial courses additional support in learning labs while they are enrolled in gateway college-level courses. The results have been astounding, with 78 percent of students successfully completing gateway courses in quantitative reasoning and 65 percent in statistics in a single term -- up from about 10 percent under traditional remediation models.

In these approaches, institutions are not eliminating remedial education, as some have suggested. Instead, they are shifting it from a prerequisite requirement to a corequisite, where students receive support while enrolled in the gateway courses. By delivering corequisite remediation alongside the college-level course, we eliminate attrition points -- the moments where students are most likely to fall out of the system -- and give remedial education instructors a framework in which many, many more of their students can succeed. We have found that it is not what happens in classrooms that is the problem -- but what happens from one semester to the next. Lengthening a student’s academic program by adding time and courses reduces the likelihood of their graduation. We are excited that innovators have found a way to solve the attrition problem without compromising the quality of instruction or lowering academic standards.

Around the country, efforts like corequisite remediation are gaining momentum. At a White House summit this past winter, 22 states made commitments to significantly increase the percentage of students placed into remedial education who complete gateway courses in one academic year. In addition, seven states have committed to scaling corequisite remediation statewide by 2015, ensuring that the majority of underprepared students in their states receive the academic support they need while enrolled in gateway courses. 

These principles for reform are based on a recognition that our current system allows too many students to fall through the cracks -- students who want nothing more than an opportunity to chase their dreams and reach their full potential. Our work is not a devaluation of the extraordinary efforts undertaken by remedial education instructors, but a challenge for all of us to work together and empower their work with innovation and ingenuity. 

At Complete College America, we believe -- and research has shown -- that far more students can succeed in college-level gateway courses than are currently placed into them. But we also know that such successes are dependent on additional support. Many students need remediation, but we have to deliver it in a way that is effective.

CCA supports any and all models that can show dramatic improvements in the number of students who successfully complete gateway math and English courses and ultimately earn a college degree. We look forward to continuing to work with faculty and higher education leaders from across the country to accomplish this critical goal.

Author/s: 
Stan Jones
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Stan Jones is president and founder of Complete College America, a national nonprofit working to significantly increase the number of Americans with a college degree or credential of value and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.

Ending remediation is the wrong answer (essay)

Remedial education in higher education has become a target for reformers. Lawmakers in Florida have made remedial classes in math, reading and English optional for students entering community colleges in fall 2014. The placement tests to assess these skills will be optional as well.

Meantime, Tennessee and Connecticut have passed legislation making it easier for students to bypass remediation and enroll directly in courses that lead to graduation and completion of a major. And California State University has lowered its math and English placement test cutoff scores, requiring fewer students to do remedial coursework.

Roughly 60 percent of the 6.5 million students who enter the nation’s 1,200 community colleges enroll in remedial classes. More than half of them quit before finishing.

The states’ move away from remediation reflects growing skepticism toward its effectiveness as a graduation aid. Researchers from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, for example, found that unprepared students who enroll in remedial classes are no more likely to persist toward a degree than unprepared students who don’t take them. While other research suggests that remedial work may benefit extremely low-skilled students, colleges can’t force students to finish the coursework successfully.

Proponents of the reforms say they want to help students save money and earn college credits earlier, worthy goals at a time when student debt is mounting and colleges and universities are under pressure to graduate more students.

But a “one size fits all” approach to the problem – making remedial courses optional, for example -- is likely to fail. Researchers point out that studies on the effectiveness of remedial work predominantly focus on students who came close to passing placement exams.  They judge kids who score abysmally on the tests as too different from college-ready students for inclusion in the studies. That remedial coursework may not benefit a subgroup of students is not a solid justification for eliminating it.

So before putting remedial work on an optional footing, or abandoning it altogether, there are innovative approaches worth trying to improve students’ college readiness and graduation rates.

One approach is to create accelerated learning programs, sometimes referred to as mainstreaming. These can assume many forms, but typically they integrate low- and high-performing students in remedial classes. For example, students are placed in a small math or English seminar while taking general education classes for credit. This approach has been found most effective for the higher-performing students. It avoids labeling particular students as deficient, thereby reducing the risk of stigmatizing students who already face barriers to social equality.

And it builds on the well-supported research finding that students learn how to complete college-level work by doing college-level work.

The success of mainstreaming depends on the quality and accessibility of support services. Small seminars and tutoring, for example, best supplement college-level instruction. A stand-alone support center is less helpful. A big benefit of mainstreaming is that the progress students achieve in developing their English and/or math skills improves their chances of success in regular college courses.

But tutoring and other learning supports have to be integrated with existing curricula and be flexible enough to help students with varying levels of underpreparedness. Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University, for example, eliminated remedial math, put students in college-level math instead and offered workshops that gave them extra-individualized help based on their initial assessments. One result is that twice the number of students passed the first level of general education math than in previous cohorts.

Institutions such as Kingsborough Community College in New York have pursued another approach by creating learning communities. These come in various shapes depending on students’ math and English skill levels. Some mix low- and higher-performing students; others are made up only of students who score low on placement tests. All such programs involve collaboration among remedial and general-education instructors, which includes the development of an integrated curriculums and opportunities for additional student support such as advising.

Research has shown that learning communities positively affect student outcomes. A study of Kingsborough’s program, for example, compared students enrolled in a learning community with traditional remedial-course takers and found that the former took more regular courses on average, passed more of them and earned more credits toward a degree.

But these kinds of interventions don’t just cost money. It takes time to design and implement what are essentially customized programs for subpopulations of students. While innovative strategies such as that adopted by Kingsborough show solid promise, the broader challenge is to identify what interventions work, how many resources need to be allocated to the project, and how to get faculty, administrators, counselors and students on board with reform efforts. That kind of expertise is crucial to making innovations travel.

Is maintaining a role for remedial education worth it? It’s unglamorous work, attempts to improve it frequently encounter bureaucratic resistance, and the research on its effectiveness is mixed.

But shutting down remedial programs without first trying out alternatives, as challenging as that is, will harm students who need the most help, especially those who graduate from low-performing, high-poverty high schools. Channeling these unprepared students into college coursework without providing them with an academic safety net is no formula for higher completion rates.
 

William G. Tierney is professor of higher education and the director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Julie C. Duncheon is a USC Provost’s  Ph.D. fellow.

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Remedial reform and completion key to Latino students' success, politician argues

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Latino students need colleges and states to focus on completion as well as access, and to reform remedial education, Colorado's lieutenant governor tells fellow educators.

New ETS test on non-academic skills

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ETS releases a new test to measure students' non-academic skills. Colleges want to use test for advising and finding remedial students with "grit."

Essay on teaching a student who may never pass

"Mike" is a student in my developmental English course. He was born in Argentina and calls himself Argentine, but he came here with his parents and older sister when he was 5 and he’s now 26. His family members speak Spanish at home, but Mike is of course perfectly fluent in English, having gone to public schools. He has been at our community college for two years; his only class this semester is developmental English. He has taken this very course four times, and his choice of other content courses is limited until he passes this class.

He has a round, bright face, dark hair, bushy brows, wire-frame glasses, small features and a neatly trimmed goatee. He is usually smiling broadly or grinning nervously. He is always anxious about directions. Today he is anxious about finding words with which to describe "The Rules of Friendship." I have written those four words on the board, and told the class, "Go ahead. List the rules … or laws or duties … of friendship."

"Friendship’s a duty?" Mike asks.

I address the class, "Is it a duty?"

"No," says Adam. “It’s more like … friendship has duties. That means if you’re gonna be a friend, you gotta do this or that."

"Right! So list — just list — what you think the duties or rules of friendship are."

This assignment never works.

I mean to draw them out, to get them to commit themselves to some ideas and then I imagine complicating those "laws" they’ve proscribed by having them read William Carlos Williams’s "The Knife of the Times," a very short story about Maura, a married woman, whose friend from childhood, Ethel, also a married woman, has realized she is passionately in love with her. Then, having read that story with my students, I imagine saying to them, "Well, why can’t a friend fall in love with you? What control do we have over that? Why shouldn’t we be sympathetic, as the flattered but confused heroine is?"

Just describing that assignment, it fools me again! It sounds so good!

It never works! It’s not Williams’s plot that throws them; even the most agile writers in the class get angry at their thoughts or annoyed with me for having tricked them in contemplating discomfiting possibilities; my queries in the margin are ignored or hastily answered.

Mike, in any case, is stuck. He raises his hand. Mike sits in the front row by, whenever possible, patient Joyce, who knows from her own difficult experiences in education what it is to be an outcast. Though smart and hardworking, Joyce has difficulties with fine motor skills that have hampered her social acceptance and made her handwriting appear — though it’s not — illiterate. (She refused to accept the services of a scribe, though she had used one in high school, she told me.) Mike, in a panicky hushed voice, says something to her. Joyce whispers something in reply. Mike shakes his head and keeps his hand raised.

"Mike?"

“So, professor, is it O.K. if I say … if I say the duty of friendship is to be a friend?”

Joyce covers her eyes and bows her head.

Especially in developmental English, I really try not to be sarcastic. So I pause, but several students in that pause tilt their heads in wonder. It’s only the second week of class and Mike has become already the touchstone of incomprehension. Everyone understands better than Mike. If they don’t, they know they just weren’t listening. Mike’s presence is reassuring ("I’m not that confused!"), but it’s also worrying ("If I’m in the same place as this guy …"). I don’t want the other students to feel misplaced. They are in the right place — but they will make progress and Mike never ever will.

If you’re a serious teacher, you should indignantly ask, "How could you know that?" Or, trying to be kind, "How did you resign yourself to accepting that?" I’ve asked myself those questions, too, because I’m quite accustomed to being wrong about students — so how could I have faith in (resignation to) Mike’s failure?

By the end of the second week, I have guessed that Mike is probably a student who uses the outstanding special services program at our college. He and I are veterans of this course; I have taught it 22 times; he has taken it or the class immediately below this one four times.

He has told me his previous instructors here were nice but they didn’t know how to help him. He says it’s very good that I know some Spanish ("Some?" I wonder — I thought my Spanish was pretty good!), and that he has appreciated a few of the explanations I’ve been able to give him in Spanish, but he says my vocabulary is poor. "It’s O.K.," he says, encouragingly, patronizingly, in the same way I realize I sometimes address the students. "People think Spanish is easy, but it’s not."

One morning at the end of our third week, he waits for me after class. I have announced the date for the departmental midterm, and he tells me, "You know I have a few problems and I get to have extra time on my exams?"

"No, I didn’t know that."

He pulls out a form from the special services program that does not explain in any particulars why he’s to be allowed extra time, and he notes the date of the midterm. "And you have to sign here so I can be allowed to do that."

"Of course."

"I don’t really need it, but it’s nice to have extra time sometimes. It’s hard for me to think when there’s lots and lots and lots … and lots of pressure. When there’s a lot of pressure, I don’t really care for that, you know?"

"I know there’s a lot of pressure with exams. It’s fine, Mike."

The next week, Mike asks, a few chapters into our crawl through To Kill a Mockingbird, "Why is Scout angry with his brother?"

"But … Scout?"

"He’s mad at his brother."

"Remember, everyone, Scout is a girl — Mike, you mean her brother."

"Scout’s gotta be a boy," insists Mike.

"But she’s not."

"Because she plays with boys."

"Yes."

"But she’s a girl?"

“Is it the term ‘tomboy’ that’s confusing, Mike?”

"Yeah, maybe that’s it."

Mike makes progress in moments, but those moments are piles of leaves on a windy day. They don’t stay where we pile them. They blow every which way, and the next day there’s no sign of them.

"Scout was a boy but now she’s a girl," he announces.

"No, she’s always been a girl. She is a girl. 'Tomboy' is a term people used to use to describe a girl who plays with boys and prefers their company to other girls."

"So ‘tomboy’ doesn’t have to be a boy?"

"It’s never a boy — it’s always a girl."

"That doesn’t make sense."

"It’s an expression, but that’s really what it means."

"It’s very confused — that word is confused, you know that?"

He writes draft after draft of an essay on a scene from the novel, and I cross out and query his logic or his bewildering accounts of the book. I return draft after draft to him. He is proud of his persistence. This rare quality, which I aspire to and always admire in others, is finally the quality that convinces me Mike’s hopes for educational progress are hopeless. If he weren’t trying so hard, I could keep thinking of ways to try to motivate him. But he is trying so hard. I’m stumped.

"I worked on the revision you gave me back yesterday, because that’s all I really have to do. I don’t have a job, and so I like to sit at my computer and I do my work really fast. I think you’ll like this new one I did. It has everything you said I should say.”

Because he can’t do much with the queries I make (e. g., "Where do you see this in the chapter?" "Is this you or the author making this observation?"), I have been crossing out and rewriting his phrases into sense and instructing him to simply type up what he sees there on the page. Copying what I have written or copying sentences by Harper Lee, it turns out, is quite enough of a challenge. After four or five weeks, we have built an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird. If you don’t look too closely, the essay seems to make sense.

"But this is good, right, professor?"

"Well, it’s getting clearer.”

“But it’s good?"

"Not yet."

"Really?”

“Yeah.”

“But better?”

“Clearer. So, yes, clearer is better, Mike."

During revision time in the computer lab, I have him read new drafts or paragraphs aloud to me and I, holding my own copy, stop him if he doesn’t hear his frantic wandering circlings or missed words. He misreads his own writing and I check him: " 'She seen me,' you wrote."

He’s continually reading my face — I am perplexed by his confusion. "Oh, oh!" he says. He starts his random guessing: "'She didn’t seen me'? …" He studies me. "That’s not right," he concludes. "I can tell!"

"Right. So …"

"Oh! She saw me!"

"Right — and you read it aloud as 'saw' — but you wrote it as 'seen.'"

"Why did I do that?" he asks grinning. He turns and looks over his hunched shoulder at his classmates. He is smiling in embarrassment, though no one else — they’re all typing away -- has witnessed his mistake. "I know what I mean, but I don’t write it. It’s confused. It’s confusing. What’s the difference, confused and confusing? You say both things on my papers sometimes."

"Sometimes I’m confused; sometimes what you write is confusing — producing … making confusion. So, Mike, let’s try to get you to use your ear to check. Go on, we’ll continue, but you can do this on your own, too."

The next day, another draft.

"So this is my sixth draft, professor. You think this’ll pass me?"

"Do I think this will get your portfolio to pass? … No, probably not."

He grins. Had he heard right? "You’re teasing, right, professor? You like to tease."

"I do tease too much … but, no, I wasn’t teasing — Mike, the main thing is to make progress. Your writing is very confusing — even to you! We have to work on that.”

"But I could still pass the class, right?"

"You could — but you don’t need to think about that." He cannot pass! Why am I lying? He will never, ever pass the exams.

“So you think I could pass?” he says quickly, eagerly.

"Right now …" I pause and reflect.

What is encouragement but the faith in progress? I cannot and will not encourage him. I’m going to take back my lie. I’m going to tell him no, never, he’ll never get out of this class and this course. I’m going to be teaching this course until I die and he’ll still be taking it. "Right now, Mike … it doesn’t look likely."

"But if I work real hard …"

"If, somehow, the confusion disappears, then it’s possible."

"It is possible," says Mike. "I can write not so confused, right, professor? And then I’ll pass for sure."

"Let’s get back to work. But I can’t see any more drafts of this because I need time to look at everyone else’s third drafts."

"I have faith in me and you have faith in me, too, right, professor?"

"I know, Mike, that you’re going to work hard. That’s my faith."

He takes a long look over his shoulder, as if to refute his doubters, Pyotr, Adam, and Beatrice, and announces, "I’ll work hard and professor says I’ll climb out of this class!"

A couple of weeks after the midterm, one of my kindly colleagues returns to me my students’ exams. (In our developmental courses we instructors evaluate one another’s students’ exams and portfolios; I’ve come to like this system, as we can all take comfort that the judgments the students receive don’t wholly depend on our personal biases.) "I think I missed on one," says Luisa, with perplexity. "There was something going on and I couldn’t follow it. Miguel, I think it was."

"Mike — yes." That day I hand back the midterms and the other professor’s responses and then meet for a few minutes with each student about the exam. Mike tells me, "I did pretty good!"

"Which part did your reader like, Mike?”"

"None of them really — but she said I could probably do better. I could probably be more clear. So that means I’m doing better."

I will hear, a year later, from Mike’s teacher in the same course, that when Mike showed up to her classroom to take the midterm, she expressed her surprise. "Mike, you want to be here?"

"Yes, here. I know my rights."

“I mean … that’s fine.”

“I can take it here. You can’t stop me.”

“That’s fine, Mike! But you won’t be able to have extra time if you take it here.”

"I know that! I just want to be like everyone else, that’s all."

"Oh." (My colleague: "That’s what got me. After all, his goal’s pretty humble. It’s just … I don’t want to admit it even to myself, but I don’t think I can help him get there.")

                                                                                                  *****

The last day of the semester usually seems anticlimactic. The last day used to mean so much to me when I first started teaching. Now the goodbyes are less regretful, less complicated. It’s a cycle rather than an end, I tell myself.

For the developmental class, it’s results day: the students receive their portfolios and their reading scores. If they pass both, they can take the systemwide writing exam and graduate to Freshman English, where they can finally see their time and money paying off in their pursuit of an associate degree. In my office, I gather their portfolios — cross-graded by my colleagues — and leave early for the classroom. I want to see Mike, who is always early, before his classmates arrive. When I arrive he and Adam are there. I have also brought two boxes of doughnuts. I lay the cartons on a desk to the side and open them. "Have one."

"I’m going to wait," says Mike. "I want to see first if I passed."

"Adam?" I say, nodding at the doughnuts.

"Don’t mind if I do!"

I sit at my desk with the stack of student portfolios before me. “Who’s first?”

"We were on the same elevator," says Adam. "Go ahead, Mikey."

Before he approaches, I feel Mike’s eyes trying to read me. Hope? Hope? Hope!

I feel stone-faced, like a judge. How can Mike possibly think he can pass? How?

He sits at the chair to my right beside my desk.

"I passed, right?"

From the stack of portfolios I take his and push it across to him.

"This is my portfolio," he says.

"Yes."

"I should read it?"

I nod.

“Should I?” he asks. He is desperate to read congratulations in my expression.

As I watch him hesitate, his fingers rubbing at the portfolio cover, his body slowly rocking in the chair, I groan, "You didn’t pass, Mike!"

His mouth goes tight; his round, mobile features go numb. He has never been at a loss for rambling, panicked, anxious words.

The portfolio before him remains unopened. I reach over, he pulls his hand off, and I open the cover.

Imagine a sawn tree just before it’s pushed over. Is it wobbling? Is it unnaturally still because it’s about to topple? I see that stillness in Mike.

I extract the evaluation sheet from the portfolio. "Now look — your revised essay, the one on To Kill a Mockingbird, the one you worked hard on, that’s ‘Satisfactory-minus.’ The professor who read it liked it, for the most part. … See?" I read aloud her comment.

Mike isn’t responding. He is looking at me, not reproachfully, as far as I can tell, or angrily, but as if he has been sentenced to life in prison for a parking ticket. Then I realize he is doing all he can in order not to cry. I am his executioner and in the absence of his voice I am the one babbling. I encourage him!

"You made progress with that essay, Mike. You made some progress. It’s O.K. … it’s not a failure," I lie. "Are you O.K.?"

He doesn’t answer. I close the portfolio.

"Mikey," Adam’s voice calls out from the back of the classroom, "it’s cool. You’ll make it next time."

Mike doesn’t turn. His reproachful eyes land on mine. His eyes are watery but he does not cry. I look down in shame. I see his hand take the folder and when I look up he is lifting his backpack as he rises from the chair.

I say, "Take a doughnut, Mike."

He turns and walks out the door.

I want to lay my head on my desk, but I hear the chatter of voices in the hallway.

Adam says, "I told him before you got here that it might take like two semesters."

For Mike it might be "like forever." He will be here forever, and I will be here forever in that purgatory of non-progress.

I sigh. "You passed, though, Adam. Congratulations."

"I know — anyway, I thought I would. I didn’t want to get too cocky or be too happy while Mike was still here."

The other students are arriving and someday Mike will be back.

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

 
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Carnegie Foundation's remedial math fix

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Carnegie Foundation's remedial math redesign shows big gains but no simple answers to one of higher education's toughest challenges.

Study looks at K12 to community college transition in California

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High school achievement tests are good predictors of performance for students at California's community colleges, but study also finds troubling achievement gaps.

Two community colleges get serious about working with K12

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Long Beach City College and South Texas College work with local high schools to prevent students from falling into the quagmire of remedial courses, and placement tests aren't the answer.

Study shows decadelong dip in remedial coursetaking

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Federal data show that proportion of students in developmental courses edged up between 2003-4 and 2007-8 -- but fell sharply from 1999-2000.

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