In an Effort To Boost Achievement, Denver Abolishes Remedial Classes

By Robert Rothman — October 11, 1989 6 min read
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The Denver Board of Education has approved an ambitious plan to raise student achievement by eliminating remedial classes and and instead placing low-achieving pupils in regular classrooms.

The plan, approved unanimously last month, is part of a wide-ranging initiative that also includes revisions in curriculum, testing, and counseling services.

It has come under fire from teachers, who object to the fact that they were not involved in its development and warn that it may not be effective.

But Deputy Superintendent of Schools Evie G. Dennis, the initiative’s architect, predicted last week that it will succeed in ensuring that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge they need for college and the job market.

“We’d like them to make the choice, not have the choice made for them because we didn’t teach them right,” she said.

The proposal makes Denver the second large urban district to eliminate remedial courses. The San Diego City Schools in 1987 began a seven-year effort to phase out such courses in high schools and middle schools. By the time San Diego’s class of 1994 graduates from high school, said Kermeen Fristrom, the district’s director of basic education, all graduates will have taken courses that meet the admission requirements of the University of California system.

In addition, 40 schools nationwide, under the leadership of Henry M. Levin, professor of education at Stanford University, are placing low-achieving students in accelerated classes.

Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, predicted that other urban districts will follow suit, particularly if the federal government relaxes restrictions on Chapter 1 funds, as President Bush and the nation’s governors proposed at last month’s education summit.

In their joint statement, Mr. Bush and the governors pointed out that policies that permit compensatory-education students to “return to their regular classes and receive extra help have produced large increases in their test scores.”

“You’ll see more and more of this happening,” Mr. Husk said.

‘A Higher Level’

The move away from remedial coursework reflects a growing body of research suggesting that such instruction has failed to bring the performance of low-achieving students up to the level of their classmates’.

In fact, said Mr. Levin of Stanford, remedial coursework tends to “slow kids down and get them farther and farther behind.”

In studying the reasons for such patterns, he found that disadvantaged students tend to be labeled “slow learners.” As a result, he said, less is expected of them, and such expectations become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” By the end of the 12th grade, Mr. Levin said, half of such students have dropped out of school and the rest are four years behind grade level. (See Education Week, June 10, 1987.)

Those patterns are especially worrisome, said Mr. Fristrom of San Diego, because the academic requirements for college and the job market have increased markedly in recent years. “Society has changed so much,” he said. “Future jobs are going to depend on a higher level of education for everybody.”

Board members in his district, Mr. Fristrom said, agreed that “we no longer can offer a high-school diploma to students doing elementary-school work.”

Mr. Husk added: “The emphasis has to be on helping kids master classwork, not a set of remedial skills in a workbook.”

‘Warmed-Over Oatmeal’

In Denver, according to Ms. Dennis, the initiative began with a similar motivation: to ensure that all students were able to complete high-school-level work.

The current state of student achievement in Denver, she said in a report to the school board, represents “great concern and yet great potential.”

The proposals, the report states, “are the foundation upon which the district will turn around low test scores and spiraling dropout rates, provide excellent educational experiences for all students, work toward lowering suspensions and expulsions, and draw back students from private schools.”

Many of the ideas, Ms. Dennis said in an interview, are based on “effective schools” research, which holds that all students can learn if schools raise academic expectations, define instructional objectives, monitor performance, provide strong leadership, and enlist community support.

Specifically, she said, eliminating remedial courses would raise expectations for students who would otherwise remain stuck in low-level coursework for most of their academic lives.

“In this district, we say we don’t track, but we do,” she said. “Kids don’t get out of the low track.”

Under the proposal, the district will develop plans to phase students who are in such classes into regular classes. Schools will continue to provide remediation and special intervention “when the need is indicated,” the report states.

In addition, the district plans to reduce the rate of retentions, Ms. Dennis said. “It doesn’t do much good to retain kids and give them the same warmed-over oatmeal.”

The eventual goal, she said, is a 100 percent high-school graduation rate.

“People say, ‘Why not say 75 percent? That would be more realistic,’” she noted. “But I say, ‘Do you want your child to be in the 25 percent who will not graduate?”’

Teachers of Reading

In addition to eliminating remedial classes, the Denver plan calls for revising curricula and tests.

The new curricula, the report says, should “reflect the varied cultures of our community” and incorporate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Moreover, Ms. Dennis said, the district will require reading instruction in all classes.

“All teachers will be teachers of reading,” she said. “There is nothing magic about 45 minutes of reading, then moving into social studies to memorize the rivers of South America.”

The new tests should match the curriculum to ensure that it measures what students are learning, according to the report, and should function as “diagnostic evaluation instruments” for teachers.

Although several of the proposals will require additional funds, Ms. Dennis conceded that “we don’t have more money.”

Instead of drawing entirely on its own resources, she said, the district will be more aggressive in developing partnerships with local businesses and the community. To help coordinate such arrangements, the plan calls for hiring an assistant superintendent for community and volunteer relations.

‘Lost in the Shuffle’?

Rae Garrett, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union supports the plan’s goals of raising achievement.

But, she said, teachers object to a provision that would allow district officials to transfer successful teachers into poorer schools.

Although the plan is aimed at making the best use of teacher resources, she said, it “punishes” teachers for success.

Ms. Garrett also warned that eliminating remedial classes may end up harming students, as long as class sizes remain large. Although the average pupil-teacher ratio in Denver is 16 to 1, she said, many classrooms have 25 to 30 pupils.

“If you are asked to teach kids who are heterogeneously grouped, you need to do so in smaller classes,” she said. “I worry that [low-achieving students] will get lost in the shuffle in a 30-kid classroom.”

But Mr. Husk of the Great City Schools said the move was likely to result in reduced class sizes, since remedial teachers will be available for regular classes.

And, noted Mr. Fristrom of San Diego, preliminary results from his district indicate that students there are faring well. In the six pilot high schools that began to eliminate remedial courses in 1987, he said, 50 percent of the students moved from remedial to regular classes and from regular to advanced classes, while the failure rate increased by only 4 percent.

Denver must develop a similar accountability system to ensure that students receive the help they need, Mr. Husk said.

“With no accountability system, it could be badly abused,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as In an Effort To Boost Achievement, Denver Abolishes Remedial Classes


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