Remediation and College Success

There has been a lot of buzz online about college completion. This is a shift away from college accessibility; as put in a recent editorial, “Access Without Success Is An Empty Promise,” with less than 50% of students who start higher ed ever get their four-year degree. While far from the only issue, the need for remediation plays a significant role in predicting college success. According to a 2006 study (pdf), a student who requires a remedial reading course is 41% more likely to drop out.

This has not escaped the notice of some powerful (and rich) organizations: both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation are funding a Developmental Education Initiative which focuses primarily on community colleges. Those of us who have taught/are teaching at the university level know that community colleges aren’t alone in dealing with underprepared students. Both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle featured articles today that look at the issue of remediation and college completion.

Some of their conclusions? Personalized and targeted services. Small, short (and cheaper) remediation courses that focus on specific weaknesses. This is not new; an (expensive) online seminar on serving underprepared students talks about evaluating students early to assess their level of readiness, getting to know their unique situation and intervening as quickly as possible.

Who is supposed to be doing this intervention? Overworked adjuncts? A whole new class of university administrators? How much intervention are we supposed to provide? And, finally, where in this do we get the students to actually care?

The most interesting information and provocative questions most often come from the comments. One instructor commenting on Inside Higher Ed asks how she is supposed to get her students to understand that they need to be able to read and summarize, write and organize, etc. Another asks why higher ed keeps having to make up for the shortcomings of the K-12 system.

But the comment that is near and dear to my heart is from Martha J.: “If colleges would stand firm on entrance standards, private preparatory systems would quickly emerge to provide remediation – and the very existence of such systems would help put pressure back on the high schools, where it belongs.” Hi, Martha, I’d like to introduce you to I think it useless to wait for the colleges to lead the way at this point. The private preparatory systems are coming for you! Putting pressure on all forms of education since, well, right this second.

Edupunk vs. Edupreneur

I’ve been inspired in my new business venture by the writings of Anya Kamenetz whose book, DIY U, analyses the new movements in liberating higher education. A recent article focuses on Edupunks, those who are seeking to overthrow tradition higher education, mainly through providing free (or nearly free) content and classes. The article is well worth the read as a resource for free (or nearly free) courses, content and degrees available online. I’m a big fan of free content on the Internet; many of my lectures have been informed by free videos of lectures, podcasts, online discussion boards and course notes.

The part of this particular aspect of the movement is, much like online newspaper content, is still relying on the old institutions (the university) in order to provide content. The professors who are providing this content are paid by the university. Why not allows students to access their lectures? They are still pulling in their salary, there are still students paying tuition and putting their butts in the seats, and chances are, they have tenure and thus almost absolute job security. How many adjuncts have the time, resources or academic freedom to be able to do the same things?
How many of them want to?
At the end of the day, my small project needs to make money or else it will cease to be. I am providing a service that I would love to give away to non-traditional and minority students in order to help them succeed, however they want to. But I also have a family to help support, student loans and other debt to pay off, rent to pay, food to buy, etc… In discussions I have been having on Twitter with others who are passionate about education reform, some have said that real change will come from below. DIY U seems to imply that the changes are coming from the top. I can assure you that change will not come from the middle.
At the bottom, there is nothing left, really, to lose. There is nowhere to go but up. At the top, there is the security, the connections, the money to be able to take a chance. In the middle, there is nothing but fear and necessity. Fear of falling farther behind and the necessity of taking care of your family above all else.
Perhaps there are those in the middle who are braver than I. But for the moment, I have to settle for scrapping something together for myself and for others with the hope that I can make at least a small change, nurture it until it grows into something larger.

Reading “Great Books”: Ultimate Pattern Recognition

Another wonderful blog that I have been introduced to, Emergent By Design, has begun exploring “Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival” and the first is pattern recognition. While shaped as a way to innovate and/or solve scientific problems, it starts with that part of the brain that loves, craves, narratives. We want to make sense of the world, and we do so through stories. Ancient myths were a way to explain the world, the seemingly randomness of the mysterious universe around us. And we kept looking, kept modifying the narrative, and it turned into science. But at the end of the day, it started with stories.

I have two very young children. My daughter is deep into the “why” period. Most days, I try to explain why things happen from a very rational, scientific place (why does the sun go down, why does it rain, why do I need to sleep, why is the dog barking, etc). But it has to be told to her in the form of a story, of a narrative. The sun is a character in the play called the solar system. It behaves in a certain way for certain reasons, and it travels to the other side of the world, so they can have the sun, too. Some days it’s enough. Other days, she counters me and says, no, I think the sun is tired and goes to sleep.
When it comes to understanding the patterns of human behavior, this has to be modified. Why is she sad? Why is he mean? Why is he scary? She is learning that all humans behave differently, react differently to the same conditions (when I cry, some of my friends give me hugs, others laugh, others run away and hide). Each reaction is the result of a story. And we can predict once we understand these stories. But where do we get different stories, how can we expose ourselves to the multiplicities of patterns formed all over the world.
Another blog, discussing “What’s so Great About Great Books,” posits the problem that these so-called great books are not repositories of Truth as many would claim, but instead confuse the reader with conflicting and conflicted perspectives. I say, yes! That is the point! Out of the chaos, is there not some connective tissue, some pattern that students should learn to identify. A comment on the article states that the best students in freshman writing have often been exposed to Great Books. Well, of course they are. They have been forced to confront different and challenging perspectives, ideas, narratives, emotions, reactions, solutions. And they will either change their own narratives or reinforce them. Either way, the student has looked at patterns within the literature and come up with a way to make sense of them.
A comment on the first article mentioned in this post laments that for most people, their ability or inability to change their narrative, to see (or accept) other patterns is due to a lack of “black swans” (literary device!) jarring them out of their stupor. What better way than literature to provide black swans for everyone to see, discuss and discover? Another comment mentions “The Hobbit” and other books where there is a quest. We are all questing and books can help us get to where we’re going, make us better.
When I taught the required Intro to Lit course that many students dread, I always told them that this was an opportunity to expand their thinking, their ideas. Even if you are going to be a scientist, literature was the way to take you from simply following directions in an experiment to being able to apply the knowledge and come up with new ideas. Exercising that part of the brain that thinks creatively, symbolically, metaphorically, narratively. That part of the brain that sees different kinds of patterns.
In order to encourage pre-literacy skills, we are told as parents to make sure we make reading active (instead of passive). Ask “What do you think happens next? Why? Etc…” Somewhere we stop doing that. Somewhere, we no longer exercise that part of the brain, forgetting to read, forgetting what reading brings. We start to see patterns, bigger and better patterns. These “old” books still have a lot to teach us.

K-12, Teachers, Testing…What DO They Do?

A wonderful blog written by teachers, InterACT, has been asking a questions lately, such as “What does Career and College-Ready Really Look Like?” and “Do You Understand My Job?” On Twitter, I have been engaged in a number of really stimulating debates about what’s going on with teachers, testing, and K-12 education. I’m still learning the acronyms, but No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the re-authorization of the federal legislation regarding K-12 education has had the internets a-buzzing.

From my perspective as an educator who taught college freshmen for 10 years, I have to say that any student who can’t write a coherent essay expressing an actual idea is NOT college ready. Any student who is not empowered or motivated to take charge of their own education/career/future is NOT college ready. I understand your job as a teacher to do that. I also understand that filling in bubbles is not constructive to getting students to my definition of college readiness.
But I also believe that there are teachers out there who are not getting students to the level of college readiness and that they need to be removed. I think that just because you’ve taught for a long time doesn’t mean that it means you’re a good or great teacher. And I know from experience that the best and brightest students are not the ones going into teacher’s colleges and getting education degrees. We need a way to get rid of these teachers and get the best for students. I also think that people will rise (or fall) to expectations.
I don’t want my children to learn to hate school (and thus learning) because school has removed all of the joy from the process. But I also don’t want my children to be completely free to indulge in any and all impulses in order for them to feel “good” about themselves. I want them to take pride in their accomplishments and to understand that the feeling of satisfaction they feel is directly related to the amount of effort (I don’t want to use the word “work”) they put in.
I guess the problem for me is that I DON’T understand what the K-12 system is doing right now. I don’t understand what school administrations are doing, what teacher’s colleges are doing, what teachers are doing, what legislators are doing, what parents are doing. Why can’t my freshman students write? Why won’t they read? Why don’t they know the difference between “I think” and “I feel”? Why can’t they understand that just simply showing up for every class isn’t enough to get an A in the class?
So, that’s my answer. Everyone lays the blame on everyone else. So, it’s hopeless, I guess. But not really. When my students come into my class, I tell them that there is no reason (not one) why they cannot be successful, however they define success. But, they have to be willing to do the work. If they are willing to do the work, so am I. I could write them off because of their parents, friends, high school, study/social habits, etc. I make it clear that I am not the one wasting their time in my class, they are. I’m tired of laying blame and tired of excuses. If I don’t try, I’m not sure who will.