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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Friday, August 28, 2009

Colleges Need to Re-Mediate Remediation

My entry this week is a reprint of something condensed from my new book (Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us) for The Chronicle of Higher Education, published on August 3, 2009. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will recognize some of this text from an entry on remedial writing that I posted in July 2008.


Kevin had a story similar to those of many young men from my old neighborhood. He was a good student in poor schools with dated textbooks, scarce resources for enrichment, and high teacher turnover. Seduced by street life, he got into trouble and spent most of his 16th year in a juvenile camp.

Upon release, he went back to school, worked hard, graduated, did miserably on the SAT, and went to college through a special-admissions program. I had helped develop the writing component of that program, and I taught in it. Kevin's first piece of college writing, the placement exam, was disorganized, vague, and peppered with grammatical errors. That is the kind of writing that we see in news accounts of remedial students and that politicians cite as an example of how higher education is being compromised.

And such writing is troubling. If Kevin's writing remained the same, he—like many students taking remedial classes today—would probably not make it through college. But a good part of the problem results from how we approach remediation in the first place.

The traditional remedial writing course typically begins with simple writing assignments and includes a fair number of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage.. The readings are fairly basic, in both style and content. Powerful—and limiting—assumptions about language, learning, and cognition drive such a curriculum, although they might not be articulated: Students like Kevin must go back to linguistic square one, building skills slowly through the elements of grammar.

Simple reading and writing assignments won't overly tax such students' abilities and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic errors. Complex, demanding work and big ideas—college work—should be put on hold until they master the basics.

No wonder remediation gets such a bad rap.

At my institution, we created another type of remediation program for students like Kevin—one that held to a different set of assumptions, which we had come to from reading current research on language and cognition and from our classroom experience. We certainly acknowledged the trouble Kevin was in and wanted to help him improve his writing in all aspects—grammar, organization, style. But we didn't believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly build his skills. And in Kevin's case, we were right. By the end of the 20-week program, he was comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and analyzing the decision making in the Cuban missile crisis.

My co-workers and I first surveyed a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of assignments students like Kevin faced in that crucial first year. We found similar readings from various disciplines and created assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them. Then we sequenced the assignments from less to more difficult and made them cumulative: What a student learned in the first week fed into an assignment in the fifth week.

For example, Kevin's early assignments required him to read a passage on the history of eugenics and write a definition of it, and to read a passage with diagrams about income distribution in the United States and summarize it. That practice in defining and summarizing would come into play when he had to compare systematically the descriptions of becoming literate in Malcolm X's and Ben Franklin's autobiographies.

To assist students, we organized instruction to include much discussion of the readings and a good deal of writing in which they could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed. And because many students, like Kevin, displayed all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we spent a lot of time on errors—in class, in conference, in comments on their papers—but all in the context of their academic writing.

That is a huge point, and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: Writing filled with grammatical errors does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and errors can be dealt with effectively as one works with such material.

Certainly not all students did as well as Kevin, but many did. People who want to purge college of remedial courses would say that Kevin doesn't belong. He proved them wrong. Those who hold to a traditional remedial model would worry that our assignments would be too hard and discourage him. He proved them wrong, too.

Some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we have taken. Successful remedial programs set high standards, are focused on inquiry and problem-solving in a substantial curriculum, use a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive, draw on a variety of techniques and approaches, are in line with students' goals, and provide credit for course work.

I have seen that approach work and even experienced it personally. I came out of elementary school with a dreary knowledge of mathematics and didn't pass high-school algebra. I had to take it over in the summer and barely passed it then. My SAT quantitative score was awful, my GRE score even lower. In college I avoided anything even vaguely mathematical.

Then came graduate school in educational psychology and a requirement in statistics. Educational researchers like Michael Cole, Peg Griffin, and Kris Gutiérrez refer to successful remediation as "re-mediation"—that is, changing the environment and the means through which students are taught material they had not mastered before. My story does not perfectly match the typical remedial tale: I was not retaking a course I had taken earlier in my educational career. But the situation is similar: I had failed, barely passed, or avoided math in the past and now faced a higher-level course with dismal knowledge.

The summer before I entered graduate school, I signed up for an introductory-level statistics course and hired a tutor. Having a tutor provided a major degree of assistance, some of it in basic math, although in the context of statistics. And—no small thing—she offered a relationship built around mathematics, a human face to a subject that had scared me my whole scholastic life. I was fortunate in that my graduate courses were taught by an excellent instructor who distributed to us draft chapters of a textbook he was writing, a clear and coherent text. In the text and in his lectures, the professor continually provided concrete, real-world examples. A few of us in the class formed a study group, providing another social context for learning. And during the first term, I kept in touch with my tutor, providing continuity and further, yes, remediation. I ended up doing just fine, to my great surprise and pleasure. So I know the feeling of re-mediating a subject in a manner that countered a dozen years of failure and aversion.

The key point is that remediation occurs in many ways, on many levels, involving most of us at some time or another. A fairly standard story about remedial students is one of young people with high-school diplomas or GED's mired in remedial math or English courses that they repeatedly fail. But there are other students, with different profiles. Some have mastered the material in question but need to revisit it. Some are immigrants who are building English skills. Others are seeking new careers or have served in the military and need a few basic courses. And some, like Kevin, have a less-than-privileged education but can catch up with the right intervention.

Legislators complain that they are "paying twice" for instruction in material that should have been learned earlier. Fair enough, but when remediation is done well, the material in a sense is encountered anew, in a new context, with a new curriculum and new pedagogy. For some of us, that makes all the difference in the world.

I don't deny the gravity of underpreparation or the concerns about cost—I spent too many years running programs to be blithe about resources. But the broader, important issue about remediation is the role it plays in a nation that prides itself on being a "second chance" society. An educational system as vast, complex, and flawed as ours must have mechanisms to remedy its failures. Colleges are integral to a rich system of educational development that reaches back through the schools and forward well beyond the point of graduation. It is terrible that so many students—especially those from poorer backgrounds—come to college unprepared.

But colleges can't fold their arms in a huff and try to pull away from the problem. Rather than marginalize remediation, they should invest more intellectual resources in it, making it as effective as it can be. The notion of a second chance, of building safety nets into a flawed system, offers a robust idea of education and learning: that we live in a system that acknowledges that people change, retool, grow, and need to return to old mistakes, or just to what is past and forgotten.

Remediation may be an unfortunate term for all this, as it carries with it the sense of disease, of a medical intervention. "Something that corrects an evil, a fault, or an error," notes The American Heritage Dictionary. But when done well, remediation becomes a key mechanism in a democratic model of human development.


  1. First, i would like to congratulate you on your NPR spot the other night focusing on "Why School". You were excellent!

    And second, having read your blog occasionally for the past few months I will say I enjoy your consistent respect for the student in particular and humanity in general. You walk the fine line quite gracefully, between "system" and "system reform" - between blue and white collar. Nothing like experience!

    I invite you to our new website, www.merge-education.com. We would like to provide a link on our site to yours -- please let me know if you would also like that.

  2. Mike is right on the money. I share a few thoughts about re-mediation to further clarify this notion.

    In two recent (2009) articles, "Re-mediating the University: Learning through Sociocritical Literacies" and
    "Re-mediating Literacy: Culture, Difference, and Learning for Students From Nondominant Communities" we elaborate the concept of re-mediation. Re-mediation is more than word play; it directly challenges remedial education and its practices. Re-mediation involves a transformation of the social organization of learning, in the tools and forms of assistance employed, social relationships, andpurpose of the enterprise; in other words, it involves a change in the reorganization of all the features that help influence, shape, and emerge in socially mediated instruction and learning. Maybe this quote from one of the articles sums up the idea best:
    "Re-mediating the university...required new forms of learning...that both provided students new tools and legitimized students' repertoires of practice and their place in the academy but on new terms. These practices provoked new awakenings for all participants, as they provoked transformations in the enduring practices and sensibilities of the academy."

    just food for thought,

    Kris Gutiérrez

  3. I don't get it, Mike. How is your remediation different than any one else's remediation? Is there a well defined "traditional" approach to remediation? If so, what might it be? My only impression is that you favor a more global approach rather than a more detailed approach. This sounds like the "whole language" approach, which I thought had been pretty well discredited. You say you don't "carve up language into small workbook bits . . ." So what do you do? And how is it different than what others might do? Can you tell us more?

  4. Thank you, Mike, for discussing this issue with such clarity. When I worked in secondary school classrooms as an English teacher and mentor, I witnessed far too many students infantilized in remedial settings. My sense then, as now (working in teacher education), is that novice teachers absolutely want to help students succeed. But they may not have the training or the mind-set to provide students with anything but basic skills – giving students a lesson on identifying parts of speech seemed to provide a sense of doing “teaching.” The relationship between providing challenging work to under-prepared students and their subsequent engagement can seem counter-intuitive to unpracticed teachers. Using a basic skills approach is ingrained in our culture, perhaps because of its accessibility. It is something that can be taught and assessed with little effort—using minimal materials and straightforward, direct teaching, the type of teaching many novice teachers experienced when they were students and therefore may find easiest to replicate. The type of change needed in this teaching approach that you, Kris Gutiérrez, and others are working towards can seem daunting for teachers already working in the system, where it is too often reinforced through scripted programs, curriculum mandates, pacing plans, and standards-based learning. At a time when the back-to-basics trend seems to have no end in sight (was Stanley Fish’s recent NY Times blog on college writing courses another call for back-to-basics?), your work illustrates how crucial providing rigorous and engaging work in social contexts is for the academic advancement of under-prepared students. There are invaluable applications for novice and experienced secondary classroom teachers and teacher-educators in how to go about re-thinking remediation. Again, thank you!

  5. Hi Mike,

    I loved this post-- it really touched me. I too seriously struggled in math, a source of shame that has followed me even into a prestigious PhD program. I think I got a 320 on my GREs in math, despite tutoring... it's like my dirty little secret. Part of what made me so emotional from it is knowing that we all-- in some area of our life-- need remediation courses. Perhaps we are those successful athletes that never quite mastered the art of the essay, or a businessman who didn't do well in chemistry, or the mom who always wished she had mastered French.

    I think when we university types can get past our big ol egos and realize that each one of us has got some area that we are not so happy about, and that we are all a work in progress, then we might be able to treat those amongst us who need an extra leg up to get through beginning college work-- or any remediation course at any scholastic level for the matter-- with the dignity they deserve. Because really, how different are they from us? Their dirty little secret is just out in the open.. that's all.

  6. It seems to me, Mike that the clear message of this post and the responses of Mary-Helen, Kris, Paula and Christine (Hi, Christine) is that when we switch the remediation focus from the student to the institution and the teaching, we take a real step towards providing the university with the type of students it needs and desires.
    The truly professional teacher has no problem with this.
    The general public, the media, and much of the education administration community think of a school as a kind of gigantic easy-bake oven—the students, the teachers, the parents, the setting, the materials, the strategies, etc. are staple ingredients like eggs, flour, milk and sugar. If you mix them together carefully and provide a catalyzing agent—heat in the case of a cake, standards in the case of education—for the right amount of time, you will get a finished product. They believe that if you want a better product, you simply have to get better ingredients, or refine the application of the catalyst. So we hear all kinds of talk about higher standards or better teachers or the right textbooks or cleaner schools.
    But when you are a professional in the classroom and pay attention, sooner or later you realize that each component of education is simultaneously a catalyst and an ingredient. Therefore, you must change and adapt the mixture constantly.
    In your re-mediation program, you made adjustments that were just right for Kevin and, no doubt, for many of the other students, admittedly they did not work for all. So you will make more adjustments where you can—in the institution and with the teaching. And why should we do this? Why shouldn’t we just assemble good ingredients and tell the students “measure up or get lost”? Well, that’s the part of your post I like the most, Mike, we don’t tell them that because, in this country, in the United States of America, what we seek is “a democratic model of human development.”
    By the way, Brian, “Whole language” is far from discredited, it has simply gone underground, changed or lost its name and continues to inform the practice of many teachers, doing a great deal of good for many students. Aside from brutality (which can be effective but is unacceptable in a democratic society), few teaching methods are ever completely discredited; good teachers bring them forth when needed. In fact, developing a complete set of teaching tools and the judgment to know when to use them is what makes for a truly excellent teacher.

  7. Poor thinking is much worse than poor grammar. Furthermore, a word processor can’t fix poor thinking. My experience is that focusing too much on kid’s grammar, and not on what they are saying makes them feel like you don’t think they have anything important to say.

    I teach a lot of grammar, but most of it is within the context of important, thought provoking student writing.

    Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay for Kids

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