Accountability Opinion

Colleges & Remedial Education

By Diane Ravitch — January 06, 2009 5 min read
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Editor’s Note: Bridging Differences resumes today.

Dear Deborah,

Happy New Year to you and to our readers. 2009 is shaping up to be an important year for American education. We will soon have a new Secretary of Education, a new voice in charge of the nation’s bully pulpit. There will be much for us to discuss and debate as the policies of the new administration are rolled out. I have read a great deal about Arne Duncan in the press, but still don’t have a clear idea about where he stands on important questions and how tied he is to the horrible business model applied to schools. By business model, I refer to the belief that test scores are the bottom line, that schools can be closed like a failing chain store, that school systems can be run by people with no knowledge of the classroom or education, that the fundamental strategy of reform is choice/competition/testing, and that schools can be turned over to corporate entities to run like branch offices. Duncan seems to acknowledge the importance of collaboration, which sets him apart from some of his infamous peers who now are considered “reformers” by the national media (or have appropriated that term to represent their slash-and-burn tactics).

I was reminded of the business model last week when I was writing a short article about the late Senator Claiborne Pell for Forbes.com (it appeared on Monday). What I will describe is by no means analogous to what is happening today in K-12 education, but see if you can follow the logic. Sen. Pell was quite an interesting and accomplished man. Among other feats, he was the main sponsor of the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts. He will be mainly remembered for establishing a federal grant program for low-income college students, now known as Pell grants in his honor. In 1972, Pell engaged in a celebrated debate with Congresswoman Edith Green, who believed that federal aid should flow to colleges and universities. Sen. Pell, however, wanted new federal aid to go directly to students, who could take it to the college of their choice. Pell won, and in doing so, he created a voucher system for higher education. In the years since then, proponents of vouchers (such as President George W. Bush) have proposed that the federal government create Pell grants for K-12 education, building on the senator’s precedent.

Today, voucher proponents point to the Pell grants and suggest that they have helped to make the U.S. higher education system the best in the world. It got that way, they say, because Pell grants encouraged choice and competition. (We are still missing test scores as the bottom line in higher education, but some federal officials have been pushing to add that ingredient.) Therefore, say the proponents, we should have a voucher system for all schooling, not just higher education.

But the counter-argument has grown louder in recent days and weeks and years, and it goes like this. Why are we pushing all students to go to college? If they want a job or career that does not require college-level studies, we do them a disservice and we load up the colleges with students who don’t want to be there and would rather be working. Charles Murray has made an argument along these lines. Then there is the implicit argument in Tom Wolfe’s novel from a few years back, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” Anyone who took this book seriously would conclude that even a great university, as he portrayed it, was a scene of debauchery where learning was incidental. And more recently, in The Atlantic, an essay by the anonymous Professor X describes students who are enrolled in his or her classes because they need the degree for their job but have no interest in collegiate studies, have read nothing in common (the only common reference point they share is “The Wizard of Oz” [the movie, not the book]), know little about the world, and cannot compose a coherent sentence. As you read the article, you may be struck, as I was, that the students are getting a degree for jobs that really don’t “need” a college education, but that the college degree has been substituted by employers for the high school diploma, which now signifies no skills or knowledge at all.

Sadly, colleges and universities become “hooked” on remediation. They have their departments of “developmental education"—the new euphemism for remediation—and they will not relinquish them.

As I read the complaints of Professor X, I wondered whether Pell was right after all. Certainly, I share his belief that no student should be denied a college education because he or she cannot afford it. Money should be no barrier to those with ambition and a thirst for learning. Nonetheless, I wonder about the unintended consequences of sending so many unprepared students to “college.” In some state university systems, nearly half of entering students require remediation. In New York City, despite the school system’s boasts about higher standards and higher graduation rates, fully two-thirds of the city school system’s high school graduates need remedial courses when they enter local community colleges. There is also the subsidiary problem that the goal of “college for all” makes the high school diploma worthless; this puts an enormous burden on low-income and disadvantaged students, who are the least likely to slog through two years or four years of higher education.

How did we find ourselves promoting the idea that all students should go to college? I am all for giving students the opportunity to go to college without regard to their income, and for keeping access open to older students who want to extend their education. But it does seem that we as a society have compelled most of our colleges and universities to establish extensive remedial programs, trying to compensate for the inadequacies of the schooling offered in K-12, or maybe 7-12.

I don’t think we will ever return to a day in which college is reserved for students who are actually prepared for college. But it seems reasonable to ask how we got where we are, and whether the current situation serves students and society best. And a pressing problem for our society, as well as for its new education leaders, is how to restore meaning and value to a high school diploma so that those who have it are well-prepared for life whether or not they choose to go to college.


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