Who Needs Remediation?

No one, argues Alexandra W. Logue.

February 3, 2021
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This piece isn’t about the fact that traditional remediation is a bottomless pit from which many students never escape (though it is a bottomless pit). And it isn’t about the fact that corequisite remediation and assignment to college-level courses do a much better job at helping students progress in college and graduate than does traditional remediation (though they do, even for students who are assessed as having the lowest levels of academic skills). Much has already been stated and written about both those topics.

This piece is about the actual word "remediation" -- that we don’t need it anymore and should get rid of it and its analogue developmental education, as well as the whole conceptual framework that surrounds both of those terms.

In higher education, we use the word "remediation" to describe what amounts to removing or fixing a deficit in people who are supposed to have some specific knowledge or skills but don’t. The three common academic areas in which students are deemed to need remediation are writing, reading and math. My work has been in the area of math remediation, so I will use that area to illustrate my points in this essay, but those points can also apply to writing and reading remediation.

In considering what happens with remedial math, note that: 1) colleges and universities presume students have had algebra in high school, and 2) most colleges and universities require students to pass some sort of quantitative coursework, usually college algebra or precalculus, in order to receive their degrees. It has also been common practice for institutions to test prospective or new college students to see if they can demonstrate knowledge of high school algebra. If not, most institutions assign students to traditional, remedial, prerequisite, noncredit courses that repeat material those students had in high school, delay their college graduation, use up their financial aid and sap their motivation. As a result, all else being equal, students assigned to traditional math remediation are significantly less likely to persist in college and graduate.

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However, colleges and universities are increasingly setting as their math requirement whatever type of math will most help a student with their major, career and life beyond higher education. Therefore, social science majors now often take solely statistics to satisfy their college math requirement, and humanities majors often take solely a course called quantitative reasoning. Neither of those courses involves much algebra, and if a student needs some extra help with the algebra that is involved in such a course, the institution provides that help by offering a variety of types of academic support, such as tutoring or, in a more intensive and required version, what is known as corequisite remediation. We now recognize that most people do not need to be fluent in advanced algebra in order to function well in our society. (How many people ever need to use quadratic equations?) Further, many people actually enjoy and benefit from studying math that is relevant to their future success.

In addition, we now recognize that the methods of assessment we use to determine someone’s prior math knowledge and skills are often inaccurate. In math, we see more false negatives -- cases of students being identified as not knowing certain aspects of math when they would do perfectly fine in advanced math -- than false positives -- cases of students being identified as knowing certain aspects of math when they will not do well in advanced math. Prior high school grades do a better job than high-stakes, one-off tests in identifying who is and is not likely to do well in a college-level math course that assumes some prior math knowledge. But all methods of assessment give false positives and false negatives.

In other words, traditional remediation often involves falsely stating that students don’t have something, and what students are said not to have is actually something that many students don’t need. Yet we require students to go through a costly, stigmatizing and demoralizing process called “remediation” -- which by the very word labels them as being deficient. It is hardly a word (or a process) likely to inspire and motivate students.

For many years now, researchers and practitioners have recognized many of these problems with the term "remedial education," and therefore some of them have proposed an alternative: developmental education. That term is thought to “focus on the process of learning as well as the content to be mastered.” However, the term "developmental education" can still have negative connotations. To someone familiar with developmental psychology, the phrase "developmental education" sounds like education designed to take someone from a younger to an older state, or from a more childlike to a more adult state, or even from a less developed to a more developed state. Such a description again can be thought of as labeling a student as somehow deficient and needing to be “fixed” -- another characterization not likely to inspire or motivate students but instead leave those thus labeled open to pejorative comments.

I noted that, in recent years, college are permitting more students to take statistics instead of college algebra or precalculus in order to satisfy their math requirement. That has resulted in more math faculty members having to teach statistics rather than algebra or precalculus. Some of them have never taught statistics, and some have never even taken it. As a result, they need to learn, or relearn, statistics before teaching it.

But do we call that instruction of faculty remediation or developmental education? No, we call it professional development. Why not also conceive of students, when they reinforce needed quantitative knowledge and skills, as undergoing professional student development, rather than remediation or developmental education?

At some colleges, the remediation framework has negative consequences even beyond extra course costs, graduation delay and possible pejorative labeling. For example, the City University of New York assesses all new freshmen before they begin classes as being college “proficient” or not. If a student is assessed as not college proficient in math or writing/reading, then by CUNY policy (with a few exceptions), that student must enroll in an associate’s degree program (most of which are in CUNY community colleges), instead of in a bachelor’s program (in what are known at CUNY as senior colleges), in addition to undergoing some form of remedial education. This is despite the fact that most CUNY community college freshmen, as is true nationally, wish to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Thus, identifying new CUNY students as needing remediation means that such students are eventually going to need to transfer to a college that offers bachelor’s degrees in order to achieve their higher education goal. Much research has shown that, all else being equal, due to the externally imposed difficulties in transferring (such as credit loss), a student who wishes to obtain a bachelor’s degree will be less likely to obtain one if they begin their postsecondary experience at a community college.

Add to this the fact that students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are on average more likely to be assessed as needing remediation because of a variety of environmental factors -- such as having had to attend high schools of lower quality, experiencing the phenomenon known as stereotype threat, being subject to discriminatory remedial categorization and having relatively fewer financial resources. The result is that the whole remedial/developmental education framework can be seen as promoting racial/ethnic inequity, as a form of institutional racism and as a civil rights issue.

Undoubtedly the people involved in establishing and maintaining traditional remediation never intended those policies and processes to have such detrimental effects. They thought that traditional remediation was the best way to help students who had experienced an unsupportive environment. But the data tell us that the remediation system further disadvantages, rather than helps, students who have already suffered an unfair share of environmental challenges.

Instead of a deficit model that employs the words "remediation" and "developmental education," what conceptual framework should we use? Why not think of each college student as an individual -- with individual knowledge, skills, needs and goals -- and each college as an institution that provides the instruction and support each student needs to achieve those goals? In this proposed conceptual framework, the words "remediation" and "developmental education" have no meaning, and traditional remediation does not exist.

In this framework, corequisite remediation gets renamed as corequisite support. And corequisite support is simply an expansion of the tutoring and many other forms of academic support that colleges already provide for many kinds of academic pursuits. Colleges would still decide who gets admitted and who doesn’t, but they would base those decisions on students’ high school records and the compatibility of students’ academic goals with the academic programs the colleges offer.

During this time in which some people are accusing others of abandoning their humanity, let us make our higher education systems and processes person-centered, dedicated to the success of every individual. Let us acknowledge that no one needs remediation.

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Alexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education of the City University of New York Graduate Center.


Alexandra W. Logue

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