The Gates and Lumina Foundations are funding broad sweeping redesign changes that accelerate underprepared students through remedial courses in reading, writing, and math to improve the odds of graduating from college. This stems from data indicating students who take a remedial class are less likely to graduate from college, with only 22.3% of two-year students completing remedial classes and the required college-level work in two years and 36.8% of four-year students in two years.
High schools now offer dual enrollment college classes so that students can begin college with a few completed courses. While this may encourage more students to go to college, there is deep concern about racing students through these courses when they aren't even performing well in high school. What is the trade off to emotional and social development when high school and college courses are taken at the same time? Is there an over-emphasis on the academic skills with very little time for a job and extra-curricular activities? Could this hastening create more problems of overblown expectations without the maturity and the experience to persist? Certainly this is an option for some students who show academic prowess, but for others who are struggling are we setting them up to fail in the future?
On the other side of the debate are the professors -- many members of the National Association of Developmental Educators (NADE) -- who are in the trenches with remedial students who feel this acceleration will hurt students in the long run, burden faculty across the college disciplines who are not equipped to address basic learning needs, and widen the achievement gap, especially for first-generation to college students. All valid points.
Here's what both sides can consider to turn our "remediation nation" into an "innovation nation" that serves all equally.
1) Require More Reading/Studying During High School
High priced textbooks, overburdened teachers, and low-income parents who themselves may not be educated equals students who don't study. In fact, students ages 8-18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day on a device, which has been linked to behavior problems and lower grades. Within the U.S., 50 percent of students are not assigned homework. This homework discrepancy exacerbates the achievement gap as affluent students enroll in college prep schools and low-income students are often not assigned homework, and if they are and chose not to do it, face no consequences. Compare this with wealthy public school districts and private schools where students are studying every night, participating in leadership activities, and embracing challenging work.
2) Build Self-Awareness--Help Students to Imagine and Detail Their Ideal Future
If students cannot imagine or envision what they might do with their gifts and talents, it is easy to give up. Many teenagers can be easily sidetracked by laziness, drugs, stress, alcohol, the opposite sex, and toxic home environments. If there is not something bigger that they can see within themselves, there is little motivation to persist. Research shows that one of the greatest components of success over a lifetime is self-awareness. When students identify what is special about them, why they should respect themselves, and how they might grow their interests, they are far more willing to follow through when difficulties arise. Advisory classes, after school programs, and summer reading/enrichment classes are all ways to address this issue.
3) Have Coaches/Facilitators At All Levels
Enlist tutors, advisors, counselors, teachers, professors, and peer leaders who can coach for a strong one-on-one relationship with students by asking powerful questions, holding students accountable, developing vision, seeking balance and perspective, and championing students to challenge themselves at the highest level. Students who learn to love challenge become workers who see what needs to be done and do it, have a comfort level with ambiguity, and trust themselves in the face of the unknown or unchartered. This breaks cycles of dependency that make students feel inept and handicap them for life outside of college.
4) Use Summers in High School for Strident Get-Ready Work
Get high school students who are not achieving at grade-level in math, reading, and writing involved in summer classes at community colleges and state schools. Summer is a golden opportunity for students to catch up academically, which is often missed by low-income students who spend the summer months unengaged from academic and personal improvement. Compare their experience to their more affluent counterparts who spend all summer in ambitious reading programs, at summer camps, and specialized programs in areas like sports, music, and theater. Also, rising college freshmen must be engaged the summer before they start college. Twenty-percent of students who are registered for college classes do not show up on the first day. When just taking into account those students entering a community college, the number jumps to 40%. One study found simply sending incoming college students reminders through text messages during the summer on the upcoming school year was enough to improve attrition to college.
5) Make Strong Workplace and Career Connections
Faculty at all levels need interesting and compelling ways to link learning to success and competence outside of school. This means that students need to be asked what they care about, what they could do in the world if they could do anything, what they are willing to do to achieve their goals, what they consider their obstacles, and what they are willing to do to remove them. One of the best ways to fire up ambition is to get "bored" students in an environment with people in the professional world where they can learn and develop their passions first-hand. Internships and co-ops don't have to wait for college, though they are a necessity in college. Many high school students can and should actively explore careers and fields not to decide prematurely what they "should" do, but to have the information based on gut instinct and actual experience which will tell them if their path of interests is a good fit for them. All college faculty should be trained on linking these working-world perspectives on the content they teach.
6) Reinvent the Housing Projects
If Gates and Lumina really want to make a difference in education, they must also reinvent the home environments to be dynamic places where residents can learn math through shopping for healthy food and cooking healthy meals with a food coach; learn follow-through by growing vegetables in a community garden; learn to sew clothing in a state-of-the-art sewing room; sharpen math skills with a personal trainer in the gym who shows how to calculate BMI, chart a fitness plan, and runs with you while asking you key questions; learn to fix a car in an automotive shop on the premises; help parents earn a GED and become a college student along with their kids--or, before their kids become that age. All of the "shop" classes that we've removed from high school used to keep kids in school and persisting in areas like math and writing. Now that we've eliminated those "learning-to-do" life laboratories, we have many graduates from high school and college-- of all backgrounds -- who don' t have the practical skills the workforce demands.
Parents in these neighborhoods are often young, single moms who don't have an education themselves. Addressing their priorities one-on-one with coaches and through classes include, specific plans to get out of debt, a game plan to get a GED, more skills for a better job, and for some, getting out of an abusive relationship and learning basic habits of success. A parent who gets educated and becomes a learning champion greatly improves the educational chances for the children they are raising.
Shedding the label of "remediation nation" will take creativity, commitment, collaboration, and a larger vision for the success of the whole person--not just the academic student, the dropout, the fast food worker, the graduate, or the successful and contributing member of society. Let's work together so that we can take this on, solve it, and create a prosperous economic future.