About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Remediation at a Crossroads

My last few posts have dealt with K-12 school reform. With this entry, I shift to an important and pressing area of post-secondary policy and reform, one that has particular relevance to the more vulnerable among us. This was originally published in Inside Higher Ed, April 21,2011.

The young woman in the hoodie behind me whispers “cried” to her friend, whose head is resting on her folded arms. “Wrote,” head-resting woman whispers to herself as the teacher goes down a list of sentences on an overhead screen. “Repeated,” “ate,” “swam,” they and the two other students in their row answer softly, in between light chatter.

I am visiting the most basic class of a community college remedial English sequence, and the teacher is reviewing verb tense by having her students convert a list of verbs from present tense to past. No one seems to be having any trouble with the exercise. The quartet behind me does it under-breath while catching up on their day-to-day. They might make errors in tense in their writing, but they won’t be writing anything longer than a paragraph until they take the next course in the remedial sequence. Unfortunately, a number of students in such classes won’t make it through the series to get to fuller writing assignments of the kind they have to do in their other classes.

This little episode reveals some of the problems with college remediation as it is typically executed. It is built on a set of assumptions about language and cognition that have long ago been proven inadequate, like the belief that focusing on isolated grammar exercises will help students write better prose. The work students are doing isn’t connected to the writing they are required to do in their other courses, academic or vocational. Going beyond the standard remedial playbook—if the instructor were so inclined—would be a big challenge, not only because she lacks training, but also because she has no time; like so many of her peers, she is teaching at two other colleges to try to make a living. The sequence of three, even four, lockstep non-credit courses established to help students build proficiency is based on the same flawed notion of language growth that limits the curriculum of the courses in the sequence. The textbook market, college requirements, and departmental structures all further reinforce the standard remedial model.

For quite a while some teachers of basic or remedial writing have been working against the grain, creating challenging curricula that directly foster the kinds of writing skills and habits of mind needed for success in college. Or developing programs that link a writing course to a content course to provide a meaningful context for writing. Or placing those students who test low into credit-bearing freshman composition and providing additional support.

But now we are at a watershed moment when not only individuals and programs are trying to do something fresh with remediation, but national attention—public and philanthropic—is focused on the issue as well.

The big question is whether we will truly seize this moment and create for underprepared students a rich education in literacy and numeracy, or make some partial changes—more online instruction, shortened course sequences—but leave the remedial model intact. To make significant change, we’ll need to understand all the interlocking pieces of the remediation puzzle, something we’re not oriented to do, for our disciplinary and methodological training and public policy toolkit work against a comprehensive view of the problem.

Most higher education policy research on remediation does not include historical analysis of the beliefs about cognition and instruction that inform curriculum. In fact, there’s not a lot of close analysis of what goes on in classrooms, the cognitive give and take of instruction and what students make of it. And I’m not aware of any policy research crafted with the aid of people who actually teach those classes. Finally, we don’t get much of a sense of the texture of students’ lives, the terrible economic instability of some of them, but even less of a sense of the power of learning new things and, through that learning, redefining who you are. Profiles of students in remedial classes, when we do get them, are too often profiles of failure rather than of people with dynamic mental lives.

Most of us are trained and live our professional lives in disciplinary silos. Let me give you one example of how mind-boggling, and I think harmful, this intellectual isolation can become. In all the articles I’ve read on remediation in higher education journals, not one cites the 40 years’ worth of work on basic writing produced by teachers and researchers of writing. There is even a Journal of Basic Writing that emerged out of the experiments with open admission at CUNY in the 1970s. Not a mention of any of it. Zip.

In addition to disciplinary silos, there are methodological silos. You won’t find a randomized control trial in the 130-plus issues of the Journal of Basic Writing, and that for some is sufficient reason to ignore them. But if we hope to really do something transformational with remediation, we’ll need all the wisdom we can garner, from multiple disciplines and multiple methodologies, from multiple lines of sight.

Along with a wider scope of inquiry we will need a bountiful philosophy of education –and the leadership to enact it. At the same time that there is a push to get more low-income people into postsecondary education, cash-strapped states are cutting education budgets, leading colleges to limit enrollments and cut classes and student services. In my state of California (and I’m sure in other states as well) some policy makers are wondering—not fully in public—if we can no longer afford to educate everybody, if we should ration our resources, directing them toward those who are already better prepared for college. We have here the makings in education of a distinction the historian Michael Katz notes in the discourse on poverty, a distinction between those deserving and undeserving of assistance. In the midst of a powerful anti-government, anti-welfare-state climate, will there be the political courage to stand against the rationing of educational opportunity?

The democratic philosophy I envision would among other things guide us to see in basic skills instruction the rich possibility for developing literacy and numeracy and for realizing the promise of a second-chance society. Such a philosophy affirms the ability of the common person and guides instruction that goes beyond the acquisition of fundamental skills and routine toward an understanding of their meaning and application, the principles underlying them, and the broader habits of mind that incorporates them. In such instruction, error becomes an intellectual entry point. 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?

The de facto philosophy of education we do have is a strictly economic one. This is dangerous, for without a civic and moral core it could easily lead to a snazzy 21st century version of an old and shameful pattern in American education: Working-class people get a functional, skills-and-drills education geared toward lower-level work. To be sure, the people who are the focus of current college initiatives are going to school to improve their economic prospects. As one woman put it so well: “It’s a terrible thing to not have any money.” But people also go to college to feel their mind working, to remedy a poor education, to redefine who they are. You won’t hear any of this in the national talk about post-secondary access and success. For all the hope and opportunity they represent, our initiatives lack the kind of creativity and heartbeat that transform institutions and foster the unrealized ability of a full sweep of our citizenry.


  1. I wish I had the time for a thorough and more coherent response, but this will have to do:

    I have been teaching these classes for five years, and if it were not for my wise teaching pedagogy professor from grad school, who assigned some of your texts in the class, I would be that teacher standing up at the board trying to "teach grammar."

    I am never sure that anything can be perfect in a quarter or semester, but I am confident that lots of reading, exploring, analyzing, and writing helps improve grammar more than convoluted textbooks and chalkboard time.

    I have been teaching mostly the same group of students since February through an accelerated program at my college. By the end of August, they will have completed three levels of composition, beginning with a remedial course and ending with a college-level, transferable course. Some of these students will be writing college level essays by August and some will not.

    I avoid disappointment by treating each student with respect and telling them the truth about their individual reality. Most of the time, my students are reasonable and realistic, and they are not discouraged by the prospect of repeating this course a few times.

    My students are not victims (although many have been wronged by a culture that doesn't believe in or value their potential); they are not failures; they are usually people who yearn for something more--better jobs, and yes, better minds.

  2. This is such a good blog. I taught a "remedial" class at UCLA this quarter-- a writing class for kids who weren't able to test out, mostly ESL and science majors. The kids were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I was blown away by the rigor of their thinking and their motivation to learn how to write (motivation that surfaced once they had diligently consumed my rant that they had to forget everything they learned in high school and understand that writing is an imperfect process that we all struggle with our entire lives). I don't have any doubt that the students you sat with in these classes at community colleges had the same brilliance of thought and motivation. I remember my own lackin confidence that prevented my taking my own writing seriously for many years. It breaks my heart that "schooling" teaches so many creative, thoughtful people that writing is not for them.

  3. The same issues arise in mathematics in K-12 and beyond. I've been working on a post to address just how badly most teachers in the US 'do' remedial math so as to simply continue or exacerbate the hopelessness most students feel when they enter such classrooms or programs. And of course, there is absolutely no justification for the traditional approach to trying to remediate in mathematics. But what's worse, the reason many, probably most, students wind up in remedial mathematics is how badly it's generally taught to begin with. So what do teachers feed students? More of the same, in what I call the "Louder and Slower" approach. And, unsurprisingly to anyone with a pulse, it doesn't work.

  4. I believe that once the junior colleges had a niche whereby they gave a second chance to immigrants and kids from poor backgrounds who couldn't make it in the regimented high school system. Once free to choose classes, to work while studying, and to develop lives independent of their parents they were able to acquire literacy. Now I see that such students are shuttled into remedial classes that deny them access to classes that might spark their intellects. Instead they endure grammar drills and worksheets very similar to their high school experience. It's hard not to suspect that there is an agenda here to segregate out poor and immigrant students so that they stay in their place. I've had many students who displayed sharp intelligence in my high school classes but lacked mastery of the King's English. I urged them into the jc system only to find that they were blocked there, forced to spend precious time and money on deading curriculum. In a 'real' class they might have been able to use their intellects but many grew discouraged and dropped out. A waste of talent in service to a failed theory of learning.

  5. I agree with Sara. I, too, do not stand up at the board teaching grammar -- (not just) because I also had a grad instructor who assigned your readings. Learning to teach, however, whether it be remedial or not, is not valued at the college level. If we understood the value of incorporating other disciplines into the English classroom, for example, we might get closer to creating composition classes that relate to the real-world mission of community colleges: To produce students who can succeed in the working community. Then, if we design a course in English from that end, we can create writing assignments that students will edit and revise more closely because they can envision how such writings would be used in that community after graduation.

  6. As a developmental reading teacher and grad student interested in the politics/history of remediation at the college level, your analysis here is spot on. In my own teaching, I avoid rote repetition, memorization, and textbooks altogether in favor of student choice and free reading. I interviewed for several full time positions in the hopes that I could be the kind of faculty who would lead a new direction in remediation, but the committees were turned off by my curriculum. They wanted someone making use of a textbook, doing things that are more traditional. I may have to start lying to get a food in the door. I think that unfortunately with the budget crunch, people will wrongfully turn to the "reassurance" of traditional teaching modes to give proof that remedial classes are worthy, rather than trying new methodologies. My class of remedial learners read about 20 books last semester, many of them reading and finishing a book for the first time since high school. My evaluations were all high. But will they pass their COMPASS tests.... that remains to be seen.