This is a commentary that was published earlier this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve been involved in college-level remedial or basic skills education for most of my career, as a teacher, developer of curriculum, program administrator, or researcher. And I am once again participating in a study that includes basic skills instruction. After all these years, I continue to be struck by the way social class biases and disciplinary and institutional status dynamics keep restricting our pedagogical imagination. We need a sea-change in the way we think about instruction in basic skills.
In this commentary I try to jostle us into thinking differently and particularly to see the class bases at play in our society’s typical approach to remedial education. I draw on some of our grand symbols of intellectual achievement—the Smithsonian, Nobel Laureates—to help in this tweaking of perception. See what you think.
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The nation has woken up to the fact that a large number of Americans of high-school age and older are unable to read, write, or do mathematics beyond an elementary level, and that the limitation profoundly restricts their opportunity to pursue further schooling or occupational training. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recently completed an in-depth study of the problem in California community colleges, and the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have been committing research-and-development money to help underprepared young adults succeed in college. The issue is also on the agenda of the president and the Department of Education.
But, important as such efforts are, they do not get to the heart of the problem. We need something grander and more comprehensive, something that will lead to a conceptual sea change in the way the nation understands and deals with the issue of academic underpreparation.
I propose that a wealthy foundation or consortium of foundations support with great fanfare a National Center for the Study and Teaching of Basic Skills. Such a center would have a long-term effect on education, social justice, and economic prosperity.
I have worked in and studied what is variously called "basic skills," "remedial education," or "developmental education" for 40 years, and it is clear to me that—on par with inadequate financial support—the biggest problems facing the work are status and status-quo thinking. Many people, particularly in the academic departments where future instructors do their graduate study, see the teaching of basic skills as grunt work. Furthermore, basic skills are taught to the intellectually stigmatized, those students who, unlike their instructors, have done poorly in the subjects and possibly failed them. To make matters worse, a significant amount of basic-skills teaching is done by part-time instructors—people with little status themselves.
Such problems of status and institutional structure interact with flawed beliefs about cognition and motivation that run throughout basic-skills instruction. One of those flawed beliefs is that the way to remedy a problem is to focus on the smallest units of the problem—in the case of writing, it would be rules of grammar, often treated out of context in a workbook or in an entire course focused only on the sentence. In such settings, students don't get to work with language in a way consonant with the intellectual and rhetorical demands of the writing they will have to do in college. Another false belief is that underprepared students' motivation and self-esteem will be hurt by a more-challenging curriculum. That is a one-dimensional, not to mention patronizing, understanding of motivation. There's no scientific basis for such beliefs, but they persist.
I can say without reservation that basic-skills work represents as rich an area of study and as intellectually engaging an arena of teaching as you'll find. If a young adult is having trouble with fractions, for example, how did his misunderstandings and flawed procedures develop? What formal or informal mathematical knowledge does he have that can be tapped? How does one access that cognitive history and lead the student to analyze and remedy it? How, then, does one proceed to teach in a way appropriate to an adult with that history? Suddenly we are dealing not only with a challenging instructional problem, but also with a number of fascinating issues in mathematics education, cognitive science, the philosophy of mind, and social theory.
Furthermore, basic-skills instruction, if done well, requires a serious consideration of disciplinary basics that tend to be taken for granted. In teaching remedial writing, I have found myself thinking about and trying to explain the origins and purpose of the conventions of literacy—such as grammar and other mechanics, and written forms like the list, the chart, and the narrative. And there's the connection between the solitary act of writing and the audience. And the complex relationship between speech and writing. But we tend not to appreciate the intellectual content of the work, because of professional and institutional bias.
Thus we need an institution devoted to basic-skills education that is equal to our great national intellectual and cultural institutions. A Smithsonian of Basic Skills. A National Science Foundation of Remediation. We should start with a news conference at the White House. Place the center in a grand old building. Pack its advisory board with Nobel laureates. Do whatever it takes symbolically to unsettle our entrenched class-based tunnel vision about this work.
But the real action would come once the center was up and running. Educators are doing effective and exciting work in basic-skills classrooms and programs across the country, and the center would document and disseminate those exemplars. The center would also bring together subject-area experts and successful teachers to develop curricula, particularly across disciplines. Today there is great interest, for example, in integrating mathematics and reading-and-writing instruction into diverse subjects—introductory social sciences, health care, the construction trades—but it is hard to do in a substantial way. English majors aren't trained to talk with sociologists, let alone welders, so the center would become a think tank in teaching across disciplines.
Along with the limitations of standard-fare curriculum, underprepared students often get stuck with an ossified sequence of remedial courses. So a number of colleges are experimenting with an accelerated sequence, or with the aforementioned attempts to embed basic-skills instruction into subject-area courses, or with various concurrent-enrollment arrangements with local high schools. The center would provide guidance to colleges trying to create such structural change.
It would also take the lead in bringing to the policy arena the fundamental but neglected issues of teaching and learning, for the basic-skills constituency alone has little political clout. And the center would award teaching fellowships and stipends, both to recruit promising young people into the field and to enhance the career development of those with proven talent.
Like the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the center would support or organize programs for the public. Some of those programs would be regional, perhaps in libraries or occupational centers. And some would be national—including public-radio and -television productions, like documentaries on exceptional basic-skills programs; or, in another vein, animated specials with Pixar-style whimsy: A Brief History of Punctuation or The Short, Happy Life of the List.
Some people will contend that our nation's efforts should go toward eradicating the need for remediation, not enshrining it. Of course we need to be doing everything possible to improve elementary and secondary education. But it is magical thinking to believe that all children will be "at grade level" or "college ready" in a decade, as promised by Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, the two major federal school-reform initiatives of our era. At no time in our history, or the history of any industrialized nation, has that goal been achieved. As long as we have inequality of resources and opportunity in America, we will need to provide multiple occasions for people to gain what eluded them earlier.
If we do this work well, with adequate resources and serious intellectual commitment, we would improve our ability to democratize knowledge without trivializing it, and make it accessible to a broad sweep of our citizenry.