Remedial education

Beyond 'Tough Choices'

An article here last year, "Sophie's Choice for 2-Year Colleges," may create the mistaken impression that the crisis in our educational system can be managed and resolved through a bitter regimen of "tough choices." The article details the decision of San Joaquin Delta College, facing deep budget cuts, to preserve some programs by eliminating others, particularly those for students needing remedial instruction or starting to learn English. The thinking behind that decision reflects important issues, but also replicates false assumptions, and in so doing draws invisible boundaries around a discussion that deserves and desperately needs more imagination and perspective.

One unexamined assumption of many higher education leaders seems to be that we, not just community colleges but an entire society that purports to believe that education is essential to democracy, are earnestly doing our best to help "the unfortunates" but, heartbreakingly, are finding ourselves overwhelmed by how unfortunate they really are. Thus, the logic goes, we’re "left with no choice" but to retreat like a lifeboat captain tearfully paddling away from the Titanic.

Although this is a consoling thought, the reality is the opposite. Two-year colleges are being overwhelmed precisely because as a society, we were never fully committed to remedial students (or to democracy, or to equality) in the first place. Many young people from low-income communities who have been criminalized and imprisoned are told they are ineligible for federal loans at precisely the moment when they are taking steps to turn their lives around. And here in New York, many of the working poor who attempt to obtain a college education are met with a cruel Catch-22: denied even part-time aid funds unless they first meet an eligibility standard by going to college full-time for two consecutive semesters. To do this, of course, they have to take time off from their jobs, which many of the working poor will find it daunting to do.

Unfortunately such hypocrisy is common to government and even to college leaders, who often fail to provide two-year colleges and programs with needed support while simultaneously claiming to recognize the value of a strong education system. Late last year, New York’s governor proposed $53 million in cuts to the City University of New York, just a year after an already massive round of cuts that included a 15 percent tuition increase.

Although close to half of our nation’s college students (and larger shares of minority and low-income student) are enrolled at two-year colleges, these institutions receive but 20 percent of the funding received by 4-year colleges and a mere 3 percent of private college donations. This bewildering disparity cannot be explained away by advanced facilities for 4-year college "research" that cost more than 2-year college "classroom instruction." At our colleges and at most community colleges, even the relatively inexpensive instruction of basic writing skills is hobbled by class sizes far in excess of National Council of Teachers of English guidelines.

In a study by the Two-Year College English Association, 100 percent of community colleges surveyed were in violation of class size guidelines established by the Conference on College Composition and Communication. At a meeting of the latter body to discuss these findings, one audience member reported that at her institution, faculty attempts to persuade administrators to remedy the problem were not taken seriously: "You could have gotten laughter out of the room." Even more disturbingly, nearly 50 percent of the survey respondents revealed that class sizes, which the CCCC would want to be significantly lower for developmental courses to ensure that the least prepared students have correspondingly more time with their professors, were not merely in excess of this lower cap but actually considerably higher for remedial courses than for first-year ones.

Of course, community college presidents see the problems before them: they’ve told President Obama that their facilities are “bulging with students” and that they "have to build capacity." But by implying that the only alternative to cutting programs is expanding class sizes or finding other ways to leverage "economies of scale," college leaders participate in and thereby legitimize a zero-sum argument with dangerously limited social vision.

And the depth of our nation’s complacency over the fact that those who need the most receive the least is also clear in the fact that some students are reaching college age with third-grade skill levels. How is it possible that in the United States, this supposed beacon of hope around the world, students can reach the age of 18 and still have only third grade skills? That's not just about community colleges being overwhelmed; it's about our nation’s collective failure to commit to the principle of equality or even "equal opportunity" at every level of education. This lack of commitment is evident in the fact that the K-12 systems are just as overburdened and underinvested as the two-year schools.

Old solutions that deflect attention to pedagogy rather than policy have not taken care of these old problems. For many students in under-served public schools, the skills and knowledge they need and deserve have taken a backseat to endless drilling for state accountability tests that have become a curriculum in and of themselves. Such a curriculum concentrates on the most rudimentary and mechanically quantifiable facts and formulas, tying short spurts of “learning” to cycles of test-preparation and test-taking. This short-sighted approach to accountability, to the consternation of teachers charged with raising pass rates on these tests, undercuts the long-term and extensive preparation that students need to thrive in college, career, and life beyond the testing site.

The scope and tenor of the discussion at San Joaquin Delta and in so many discussions about community colleges are also limited by another false assumption: that "immigrants" are the populations most in need. The invisible and tragic irony is that masses of two-year college students who are insufficiently practiced in basic skills are not even immigrants. They are the ones some community college faculty worry about the most and they are the ones who would be hurt the most by cutting remediation because they don't speak any other language and they don't have any other country to go to. The tendency to focus on romantic, nationalism-affirming stories of “immigrant hardships” instead of native-born, underserved students who have spent their entire lives being disappointed by the system obscures half of the American story, and this convenient perspective is symptomatic of a deep, ideologically elaborate denial of race and class inequality in this country.

Native-born or not, it’s hard to imagine that such students feel very respected or valued when the president of San Joaquin Delta College says "Your heart goes out to them" while cutting courses and whole programs. Similarly, you might be surprised how little solace community college faculty and staff take from being told, in the words of Thomas Bailey of Columbia University, that “‘if you get someone from 5th grade to 10th grade, even if that's not college level, that's still a useful function for the college to perform." When you are eyewitness to a building on fire, you’re not waiting to be congratulated for helping the residents make it halfway down the stairs – all you care about is getting the authorities to listen to you when you tell them that people’s lives are in danger.

Those of us who teach in the community colleges can't deal alone with the scandal of racism, classism, and other deepening social inequalities in this country, but given our place in this conversation, it is incumbent on us to sound the alarm. We need help. Our whole educational system needs more investment, not less.

Though too few and too far between, glimmers of hope can of course be found if you have the luxury of looking for them. For example, the Gates Foundation explicitly puts financial aid and other financial incentives such as scholarships at the center of its four-part plan to focus attention and resources on community colleges. Even President Obama, despite his dispiriting acquiescence to the testing industry, sounds like he understands how central the problem of capital is to the tragedy of low retention. Per the Inside Higher Ed article linked above, "When students drop out, he said, ‘That’s not just a waste of a valuable resource, that’s a tragedy for these students. Oftentimes they’ve taken out debt and they don’t get the degree, but they still have to pay back the debt.' "

But sometimes bold-sounding enterprises can incorporate elements that amount to simply evading the problem. For example, CUNY’s systemwide bid to improve retention has led to an ambitious proposal to build from the ground up a new community college that considers itself open-access but will require all students to attend full time. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? The problem is, the “full-time only” rule is, for many of our students, already a de facto requirement, thanks to the Catch-22 of the “part-time” state aid award that one can only “earn” by going to school full-time for two consecutive semesters first. How many students are already hit hard by this draconian requirement, and would therefore be ignored by CUNY’s proposal? The Community College Survey of Student Engagement reports that more than half of community college students “attend part time so that they can tend to pressing work or family obligations." This inconvenient fact leads the survey’s director, Kay McClenney, to wonder aloud if CUNY’s new project is “going to serve a small portion of students who are going to succeed anyway." The president of the American Association of Community Colleges echoes this concern, saying that such institutions "tend to succeed because they target students who are mostly not at risk […] catering to only those students who stand a better chance of success in the first place."

Action alone is not enough: it must be accompanied by frank, painful discussion of the unspoken and incorrect assumptions about the nature and real extent of the problem. In The New York Times, Paul Krugman bluntly reminded us late last year that "America, which used to take the lead in educating its young, has been gradually falling behind other advanced countries." If we ourselves continue to ignore and disrespect the emergency of our educational system, then we ought not profess astonishment when students show up in our nation's college classrooms and job fairs and voting booths lacking basic skills. If they don't have basic skills, then of course they will not understand complex college-level concepts – like evolution, for example. If they can’t understand evolution, then how exactly do we expect them to understand global warming, or health care reform, or how to get out of the economic crisis or the war in Afghanistan? Let’s not ignore the alarms or allow ourselves to be soothed by those who are simply changing the subject or repackaging old, failed solutions. We owe our students and ourselves more than talk about “tough choices” that change nothing because they end up being the toughest on those whom our society has left weakest.

Susan Naomi Bernstein, Sarah Durand and Sigmund Shen
Author's email:

Susan Naomi Bernstein, Sarah Durand and Sigmund Shen teach at LaGuardia Community College. The following individuals also contributed to this piece and its ideas:

Mitchell F. Balish, Miami University
Lenore Beaky, LaGuardia Community College
Nancy Berke, LaGuardia Community College
Evelyn Burg, LaGuardia Community College
Lorraine Cohen, LaGuardia Community College
Timothy Coogan, LaGuardia Community College
Gita DasBender, Seton Hall University
Junot Díaz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Francine Egger-Sider, LaGuardia Community College
Kristen Gallagher, LaGuardia Community College
Joan Greenbaum, LaGuardia Community College
Rosann Ippolito, LaGuardia Community College
Heidi Johnsen, LaGuardia Community College
Peter Kwong, Hunter College
Daniel Lynch, LaGuardia Community College
Sally Mettler, LaGuardia Community College
Karen Miller, LaGuardia Community College
Keith Miller, New York City Department of Education
Terry Parker, LaGuardia Community College
LaRose T. Parris, LaGuardia Community College
Maria Rexhammar, Hunter College (student)
Dawn Saliba, Binghamton University (student)
Abigail Schoneboom, LaGuardia Community College
George D. Sussman, LaGuardia Community College
Laura A. Tanenbaum, LaGuardia Community College
Lynne Teplin, LaGuardia Community College
Phyllis van Slyck, LaGuardia Community College
Celestine Woo, State University of New York Empire State College

False Hope

Each year, Pima Community College, a diverse six-campus system in Tucson, attempts to get thousands of underprepared students ready for college coursework. In 2009, 89 percent our students who were new to higher education and were recent high school graduates were not ready for college mathematics, as measured by assessment testing. Astonishingly, 35 percent did not read at a college-entry level; 51 percent did not meet college standards in writing. Pima spends more than $20 million a year on "developmental education," which the layperson would define as remedial education. These realities, and the ongoing economic crisis in Arizona, have led us to ask hard questions about how we can best serve our students.

Pima’s developmental education outcomes are no worse than those at many other community colleges around the nation:

  • Of those students taking remedial mathematics in fall 2004, only 4.1 percent who began in the lowest of three remedial classes had graduated with an associate degree by fall 2009.
  • Using another measure of outcomes, for students taking remedial reading in fall 2004, of those who began in the lowest of three levels, 2.2 percent had taken a college-level reading course, and 6.1 percent had taken any college-level course by fall 2006.

In summary, students testing into the lowest levels of developmental education have virtually no chance of ever moving beyond remedial work and achieving their educational goals. For those students and their families, developmental education is expensive and demoralizing.

So, armed with the knowledge that for underprepared students traditional approaches to course creation and delivery do not work, we are looking at the topic in a different way. "Strengthening Developmental Education" is a central initiative of our 2011-13 college plan,. We intend to examine promising developmental education approaches at other community colleges, improve assessment and testing, enhance professional development for faculty and staff, and pilot varied methods of developmental education delivery. We will determine which approaches can serve many students, and tailor those approaches to students who research shows will be able to benefit the most. In short, we are planning an overhaul of developmental education.

However, our plan also embodies the realization that we cannot help every student. Thus, Pima is redefining its open-door admissions policy. Over our 40-year history, PCC has been accessible to almost anyone, and more than 750,000 people have come through our doors to achieve their dreams. Arizona law mandates that admission be granted to any person who “demonstrates evidence of potential success in the community college.” But, as our outcomes data show, some people who come here simply have not received the education needed to succeed in college. To admit those men and women – some of whom have the equivalent of no better than a middle-school education -- and accept their tuition payment, knowing that they have virtually no chance of becoming college-ready, is callous at best.

The college thus intends to amend its open admissions policy for degree- and certificate-seeking students 18 and older to require a high school diploma or its equivalent, and to require appropriate scores on assessment tests. Only students who score at the very bottom will not be admitted. Pima will refer students who do not meet acceptance standards and who otherwise qualify to resources that can help them overcome academic deficiencies, such as our adult education program, should it continue to receive funding.

The college would be obligated to make this change regardless of the economic climate, but given Arizona’s severe financial problems, the need for a new direction for developmental education is even more urgent. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, facing billion-dollar deficits over the next several years, has proposed a 56 percent reduction in state appropriations to our college for the 2012 fiscal year. It is an unprecedentedly harsh cut, even in the context of the 30 percent reduction in state aid that Pima has absorbed over the past two years. The state is sending us an explicit message. You must drastically reduce programs and services.

The governor’s slashing of funding to Pima, and to other community colleges in the state, comes amid ongoing economic hardship in southern Arizona. In Pima County, unemployment stubbornly remains higher than 9 percent, and many who have lost their jobs are coming to the college to restart their careers; full-time student equivalent enrollment rose by 13 percent in 2009 over 2008. Moreover, area real estate prices have plummeted, and new construction is virtually nonexistent, diminishing our college's property tax revenue. These realities are creating a hard choice for us: fund developmental education programs with a poor track record, or successful occupational education and other programs aimed at those most desperate for our help. Asked to do more with less, Pima understands that it can no longer be all things to all people. We recognize that, first and foremost, we are a college. In establishing the college, the people of Pima County sought to create an institution of higher learning where students respect the value of education. Responsible governance demands that we direct our limited resources where our constituents have directed us, and where our money will have the best chance of doing some good.

Altering our open-door admissions policy is best for students and the community. Moreover, we believe that establishing new admission standards will spur an honest examination of education in Pima County. As part of its 2011-13 plan, Pima intends to organize town halls and other events to get the community conversation started. We hope to bring together educators, employers, leaders of community- and faith-based organizations, parents and students to talk about college readiness and the impact on the region of an undereducated citizenry. The troubling truths forcing Pima Community College’s redefinition of admission standards must be discussed honestly by all stakeholders. Education remains the key for the state to return to prosperity. Arizona must increase the number of residents with postsecondary certificates and degrees. As the state works toward this goal, everyone can have a voice. There is plenty of work to do.

Roy Flores
Author's email:

Roy Flores is chancellor of Pima Community College.

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