The Fast Lane to Nowhere

We should not abandon remedial education and accelerate people who don’t know the basics, argues John Almy.

October 30, 2017

If I had any doubts about what the future holds for our students before listening to this fall’s convocation speeches by our chancellor, our president and the guest speakers, I no longer do: federal and state policy makers, college and university administrators, and some well-intentioned instructors are clamoring to do away with remedial education in favor of ignoring low placement scores and simply putting most entering students into freshman composition and math.

Of course, this wasn’t really a surprise. For months, the media headlines have been adamant: “Remediation Is Doing More Harm Than Good,” “Most College Students Able to Flourish Without Remediation,” “Remediation Unnecessary if Teachers Just Raise the Bar” (as if thousands of teachers have not been breaking their backs to hoist that “bar” for decades).

As much as I admire some of the truly dedicated instructors involved in this acceleration movement and the goals they are dreaming of accomplishing, a lifetime of experience tells me that if we follow this path, no matter how expedient it might seem, we are once again turning away from the undeniable truth -- the root of so many of our problems (whether most of us care to admit it or not): we have already promoted so many students at all levels who don’t know the material that we are drowning in a sea of bogus diplomas and degrees -- and far worse, the holders of those dishonorable documents are floundering.

The answer to this very real problem is so simple it would be laughable if not for the human suffering we have produced: if we want to save our educational system, we must stop promoting students who don’t know the material. It’s that simple.

If Johnny can’t read, don’t pass him until he can. Period. If he graduates from third grade when he is 18, so be it. (I graduated from high school when I was 25, so I have some experience with this.) At least we’ll know where Johnny stands, and more important, so will he. We cannot continue to pass students and then hand them high school diplomas that they cannot read.

And even more crucial from my perspective, we who teach at colleges and universities cannot continue to graduate students who, due to their lack of basic skills, cannot function well enough to survive in their chosen fields. How, exactly, does that shameful travesty help anyone? Have you seen what employers have to say about their new hires’ lack of basic skills?

Last year, President Obama proudly announced that “America’s high school graduation rate has reached a record new high of 83.2 percent.” But, unfortunately, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only around 38 percent of seniors in high school scored at or above grade level on its reading test in recent years. Furthermore, nationwide college entrance exams show that far too many of those who can read cannot do so well enough to enroll in freshman English. And now we are passing legislation such as California’s AB 705, which will do nothing but throw gasoline all over that fire. Get them in; get them out.

How do we justify passing such ill-prepared students? “Compassionate passes” -- isn’t that what we call them? Well, according to every international ranking of American students that I have seen, such as the latest one from the Pew Research Center (“U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries”), all that “compassion” is rapidly leading our beleaguered educational system to the brink of disaster, and we are leaving hundreds of thousands of young Americans in shambles. The big news isn’t “Remedial Classes Are Hurting Students.” No, they are not! We are hurting students by not teaching them the material before we pass them, and that process begins in kindergarten and continues through college. So where, exactly, does it finally end?

I get a lot of underprepared students in my college English classes. What a great way to start a 17-week class that is supposed to culminate with the students knowing how to read, comprehend, analyze, summarize and respond thoughtfully in a concise, coherent manner to a college-level essay -- not to mention the required college-level research paper. Sadly, with so many lower-level students in the class, it is sometimes difficult to see those who came prepared. But now I’m being told there is a new “solution” on the horizon.

“Acceleration” and “corequisite” are the new buzzwords in college education. We put remedial students who are incapable of surviving remedial classes into transfer-level classes alongside students who are supposedly prepared, and that, along with a little extra tutoring, will somehow provide the lower-level students with the desire and abilities to quickly acquire all the skills they have failed to gain in the first 12 years of their educations. Baloney!

You might as well put basic math students in calculus and expect osmosis to do the work for everyone. If we are going to turn around this problem -- and our entire country, as far as I’m concerned -- then we need to stop lying. We, no matter what subject we teach, need to stop indiscriminately passing students and start requiring that they learn basic reading, writing and math skills before being promoted.

I know this from experience. I grew up in the American nightmare, not the American dream: one parent, poverty, violence, dyslexia, illiteracy, ADHD, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder -- all were hurdles I had to surmount on my road to education. In my personal journey from the cockroach-infested nightmare in which I was born and raised to my job as a community college instructor, I have learned above all that desire is the key to success in education.

But unfortunately, most of the students I encounter do not have it yet, or at least not enough of it to open the books and learn what they need to know. Why? Because they have always been passed along whether they learned the material or not. So why bother to start learning now, right? The overwhelming majority of my entering freshman-composition students (not remedial students) do not know what a sentence is -- a sentence -- let alone a paragraph. As you can probably tell from my writing, I am certainly not an expert on grammar, but it’s time to stop pretending that basic writing skills don’t matter.

In my 17-week class, I am expected to teach students everything from commonly confused words (there, they’re, their), parts of speech, run-ons, fragments, syntax, thesis statements, topic sentences, coherence, unity, logic, analysis, critical thinking, punctuation, tenacity -- the list goes on. And now we’re going to enroll a whole bunch of people who know even less into that mix. What a joke, a very bad joke -- one that is going to do irreparable harm to my students and our country.

Yes, some students who are borderline in their abilities and motivated will be able to accelerate, but the majority will remain just as lost as ever. Those who think otherwise are deeply underestimating the amount of damage that has been done to those of us who have long been accelerated right past basic English and math, and especially those of us who have grown up in poverty and violence and all the ugly, mind-altering brutality of that experience. On the day I was put out of high school, the principal said I was reading and writing at a fourth grade level. I’ll take responsibility for some of that, but not for passing myself from grade to grade.

If you want to help us, if you are sincere in your efforts to bring real and lasting change to our lives, don’t speed up -- slow down! Teach those of us who have the desire -- really teach us -- what our instructors neglected to teach us the first time. And above all, make us learn or leave. Make us accountable. Make us earn our way. Let us feel pride in what we have accomplished, not arrogance in how we circumvented the system. How else will we ever learn that success is earned, not given, that grit sometimes involves years of hard labor, even if that labor includes learning remedial math or English?

One of the basic tenets of the acceleration movement is to stop relying on college entrance exams and to start putting more value on entering students' high school GPAs. Yet GPAs don’t pull a lot of weight with me, and here’s one reason why: thousands of California high school students have not been able to pass their high school exit exams, which have consisted of an eighth-grade math test requiring a score of 55 percent (in eight attempts) and a 10th-grade English test requiring a score of 60 percent. So we recently simply did away with the exam. And voilà! We now have more high school graduates. We also now have more college students who have been conditioned to believe that they do not have to learn the material in order to graduate. They simply have to wait it out. And who can argue with that?

If we truly want an egalitarian educational system, we need to provide free, well-staffed learning centers, on and off our campuses, where folks can come and study basic skills like English, math and reading until they qualify to enter college-level classes, if that is their goal. These centers should be open and fully staffed day and night for as many hours as possible. One-on-one help will abound. Drop-in hours will allow people to attend as often and as long as they like, and again, such services and materials will all be free to the students. Desire, perseverance and progress will be the only requirements, and for those who achieve those goals, performance pay should be awarded.

Those students who are highly motivated and capable will quickly work their way into college-level classes, while those who are struggling will finally be allowed to slow down and really learn the material, instead of being passed along until they no longer have any chance of succeeding. And finally, those who don’t want to or can’t learn can leave and find something better suited for them instead of draining our valuable resources.

I’m sure some number crunchers will fault me, but right now we are squandering hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars on people who do not have the wherewithal to do the work. In fact, we are paying for far too many people to not finish college instead of for those who do. Once we stop doing that, we will find ourselves with an enormous reserve, certainly enough to help all sincere students. Can you imagine the trillions of dollars that are being lost or squandered because of our broken educational system? In a recent article for Inc. magazine, Kaleigh Moore reported that “blue-chip businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training annually.”

Acceleration might be fine for a handful, but until students demonstrate that they have attained a solid educational foundation, none of these programs or bills are going to accomplish what we need in order to turn this mess around. You do not accelerate people who do not know the basics. You slow down and teach them what they desperately need to know, including how to earn the right to join the community of scholars so that they can take pride in their accomplishments and believe that for once they truly belong.

We teachers have the ability to unravel this mess that we and so many politicians and administrators and parents and students have created. If we teachers put our priorities in order and simply refuse to pass unqualified students, no matter how overwhelming the pressure to do so might be, together we could finally settle down and get back to the basics.


John Almy is a professor of English at Yuba Community College. He is a former high school dropout who, while serving as a volunteer for Literacy Volunteers of America, quite unexpectedly discovered that helping others learn to read and write is one of the most honorable and gratifying vocations on the planet.


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