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.


Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Visit this group

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Smithsonian of Basic Skills

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.

* * *

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.


  1. Dear Mike
    After my own forty years of struggling with this issue of remediation in post secondary eudcation (especially community colleges), I applaud your idea of a National Institute of Teaching and Learning--well funded--that taps what we know about classrooms and institution, collects it, provides a forum for talking about what we know, and looks toward providing staff develoment at the teacher-by-teacher grass-roots level.

    Without such a National Institute, I don't know if we can strengthen teaching that too often remains a wasteland of skill-and-drill classrooms and change attitudes of low expectations that determinine further failure for a most neglected, underfunded, and underserved human resource. Without them we are a weakened nation.

    Our national patchwork approach is not working. Carnegie has done a study; you are currently involved in a study (and this doesn't even mention the previous work you've done). Hewlett Packard has also funded a three year study; this project, of which I am a part, is looking closly at a number of communiy colleges aound the state to discover what uses have been made of funds the State Chancellor's Office provided to enhance basic skills instruction.
    There are other studies in the works: one for example will examine data the colleges collect; the list of in-depth research on this subject is important and long. But it is too often below the radar of 98% of the people who are vitally interested in this issue, and what we learn is too rarely shared.

    I find myself looking for a sea change in my own thinking about basic skills. I don' think without something along the lines you suggest that we can bring about a new and better vision. As your writing always does, Mike, your thoughts prompt and encourage such sea changes.

    I've forwarded your blog to Norton Grubb and Bob Gabriner who spear head the HP study. Such sharing is a microcosm of what the Institute could do.

    Surely it's the best hope we have to sort through the knowns and unknowns in search of Pete Seeger describes as "a rainbow thread and needle so fine/to bind up this sorry world with hand and heart and mind..."

    I remain one of your staunchest supporters and most affectionate friends, Smokey Wilson

  2. Mike,

    You mention that "a significant amount of basic-skills teaching is done by part-time instructors—people with little status themselves." Not only do these instructors have little status, but they also usually have little interest and/or little skill in teaching. It seems that colleges and universities concentrate their funds and resources in areas of specialty and prestige. The area of "basic skills," at this time at least, has little if any prestige.

    This problem extends to the general undergraduate experience as well. Especially in large universities, most entry level courses are taught by graduate students who have no experience teaching, but instead, only knowledge and experience studying the topic. Since when do we deem it acceptable for a teacher to only know the topic without having any idea how to involve students in studying it?

    I also wonder if these two dilemmas were addressed together, it might be the best solution. Like you mentioned, Mike, shouldn't basic skills be taught in context? And isn't content better understood, grasped, remembered, probed and criticized when a skilled teacher pushes students (of all levels) to interact with it in many ways?



  3. I am teaching a fall seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center entitled "Non-Traditional Writers in the Composition Classroom." We read this opinion piece for the first session, and I have asked the students to post their reactions on this blog.

    Stay tuned for more comments.

    Rebecca Mlynarczyk
    Professor of English
    Kingsborough CC & the Graduate Center, CUNY
    Co-Editor, Journal of Basic Writing

  4. When I read this, I immediately thought of Marx's Das Kapital and his belief that workers lose their identities due to the rise of industrial production (further marginalized with Henry Ford's revolutionary assembly lines). The worker loses a sense of pride when his/her craft becomes merely a job. Yet, what crafts remain for those who do not become intellectuals and white collar workers?

    When discussing vocational education and basic skills training, how much do educators consider the psychological effects of career choices? How much do politicians? How much do students?

    Thanks for this article and your blog. It is very informative

    PhD candidate (Education)

  5. The two largest current questions pedagogy keeps asking itself about "remedial" education are:what do we need? and who decides what we need? Teachers are no doubt largely aware they are in an environment of ever-increasing, diverse backgrounds of student baggage, difficulties,language and ill- preparedness. I do agree that we need our students to get a wider understanding of writing and the ammunition for good writing through the knowledge base which subjects other than English bring to the table. With this in mind we have to be careful who we lump together when we're trying to solve learning and academic preparation issues. With that said, a "Smithsonian" of sorts seems to me the thing, or certainly the 'title' you would most want to avoid if indeed part of the problem is "stigmatization" that the "institution" itself represents. Forming an Institution to, in a sense, get rid of the corruption of the "educational" institution is like fixing the corrupt police commission by creating a police commission.Is not an "institution" precisely what you are arguing against and which we (and you, as I think you have already)must cynically question because it places on the needy student the stigma of some higher "institutional" authority reeking of centuries of old dead white guys? Furthermore, would this Institution, as large as it sounds you would make it, run the risk of simply funding crappy Colleges who then mis-spend, mis-use or otherwise "blow" the money? The wealthier and the bigger the "foundation" - the less connection there becomes between the immediate community and a grassroots effort to change it's own community of learners. Get rid of the moniker "remedial." That's fine. Let guys like myself who actually enjoy the "trenches" help our students. Don't incentivize fed-up teachers with Pixar and Disney. "Institutions" remind us of those places where doctors stand around with clipboards and "quantify" data; whose approach to grammar, composition and student results is exactly what you infer you don't want. I applaud the idea but it's easy to envision something; it's another to glorify its merits. effectiveness.

  6. I appreciate the way this article addresses the frequent assertion that college-level education rightfully presumes a proficient degree of basic skills. Rose insists that we look at the field of basic-skill education not as an unfortunate necessity, or as damage control, but rather as a legitimate responsibility of higher-level academic institutions, and one that is as intellectually exciting and valuable as other academic fields.

    The concept of the “Smithsonian of Basic Skills” makes me think about the confusing discrepancies I noticed when I left my job teaching public high school in NYC and entered doctoral work in a humanities field in the same city. As high school teachers, my colleagues and I were naturally engaged in the process of helping prepare students for college-level work, and were deeply attuned to the particular skills, needs, strengths, and weaknesses of the population of students we taught. Suddenly, as a doctoral student, I was surrounded by graduate student adjunct instructors at CUNY schools, teaching the equivalent of my former high school students, many of whom had little or no background in pedagogy or the instruction of “basic skills”.

    I agree that a “Smithsonian” of basic-skill education could be extremely useful in streamlining and disseminating major innovations in this important field. My question is, how can this field form strong collaborations with other academic fields? Can the ability to effectively work with students entering college with a wide variety of skills and needs become the responsibility of professors of all disciplines? Rose calls for a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching basic skills, and I think this is an essential step, but one that will be very difficult to take.

    Julia Goldstein
    PhD student, Theatre Studies

  7. While I agree with the idea behind this article, that more needs to be done to promote research, advocacy, and promotion of basic skills education, I find myself stumbling over the use of the word "remedial" and the idea of remediation built into the premise. For something to be remedial requires there being a deficiency in the learner, some failure to acquire information that was available; what I would argue is remedial is not the learner but the system that often precludes the possibility of learning basic skills. Can there be remediation when there never was a first attempt at instruction? Isn't it really original teaching, done after the fact?

    Beyond the semantics, I also would suggest that, as valuable as would be an institute revolved around the teaching and provision of basic skills, to completely divorce such an institution, and such an effort, from those focusing on improving primary education and negating the need for remediation would represent a huge missed opportunity. I would argue that both need to be addressed in tandem for there ever to be a truly effective solution for the current educational deficit. And, perhaps more to the point, this body of students who somehow failed to grasp, either from inadequate instruction or inadequate opportunity for instruction, the so-called basics would be an invaluable resource for those seeking to address and eliminate the situations that create the need for "remediation"--they are the ones who slipped through the cracks, and therefore the ones best equipped to tell us where those cracks are. A "Smithsonian of Basic Skills" focusing only on promoting basic skills in the present addresses only the effect and not the cause. Without question such an institution is needed, and I applaud the idea of its formation put forward in the article, but I think it must be more if it is to be more than a bandaid on a stab wound. The blood needs to be stopped on the outside, but the wound must be healed from the inside if we are ever to stop needing the bandaids, and are to be able to save the larger body subject to injury--namely, the American public and our standing as a leader in the international community.

    Sara Remedios
    Doctoral Student and Adjunct Lecturer
    The Graduate Center and Baruch College, CUNY

  8. Dear Mike,
    I agree with the previous commentator (Sara) that we must not absolve elementary and secondary education and our system of shameless social promotion of responsibility for the current literacy crisis. However, too often educators of every level point fingers at someone else. I commend your piece for claiming responsibility on behalf of college educators.
    You are right that programs like Race to the Top seek to "eradicate the need for remediation," and that this is "magical thinking." Throwing money at the problem has never worked and never will. The idea of finally acknowledging and accepting the problem as ours and here to stay is deeply appealing to me. It is as all psychiatrists will tell you--there can be no change until you recognize and take responsiblity for the problem.
    There will continue to be little if any institutional support on the secondary level for remediation; while "literacy" has been a buzzword in the last decade or so, and while, as an example, no English teachers at the former high school where I taught can get hired without a special education degree and a willingness to teach literacy, the majority of literacy programs still fail to meet the needs of those "non-traditional" learners who are most behind.
    So, why not "enshrine" the teaching of basic skills? Why not make it a serious discipline, where we study individual students and communities, where we accumulate data and teaching strategies? This is a wonderful idea, and I'd be the first to consult this institution for help.

    Diana Epelbaum

  9. Hi Mike,

    I followed up an initial reading of “Why America Needs a Smithsonian of Basic Skills” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/8/10) with the opinion piece published in College English back in January (vol. 72, no. 3, 2010) for which I greatly appreciated for your explanatory prose. The vignettes, anecdotes, and pedagogical examples make for a good grad student read, and help the layman crossing the threshold into graduate-level studies to understand issues of concern and means of success. Common to both essays are proposed solutions to the failures of educational systems.

    In the earlier piece, “Writing for the Public”, you muse on the need for scholars and students to “turn outward”, suggesting that the “field of rhetoric and composition … is the ideal place … to imagine a different kind of disciplinary and institutional life.” In the later article you suggest such an institution be founded (working title: National Center for the Study of Teaching and Basic Skills). This institutional edifice appears at first reading like a cynical, bureaucratic-approach to remedial needs (an “enshrining” placation).

    Yet, when I think of the two essays as a single thread through your year’s head, the second appears a tool employing structure to put forth out an idea. As you state in “Writing for the Public”, one of the problems with scholarly studies is their lack of access, “snap and sizzle”. Your Smithsonian vessel is confrontational enough to excite a second reading observation on the use of rhetoric to support reform in the arena of basic composition. The two essays provide a January call for, and an August example of “provid[ing] multiple occasions for people to gain … without trivializing” a “democratize[d] knowledge”.

    These two examples seem to reflect your own threshold stance through experiences as both layman and academic, scholar. On deeper examination, such rhetoric (linguistic forms of persuasion) in support of composition (“conventions of literacy”, forms, structure) share with your reader a skillful use of an outward turner’s ability to speak to both “tension[s] between the language[s] of [academic] specialization and … public discourse.”

    Thank you for your examples.
    Thomas Kerr, CUNY

  10. This kind of commentary on the status of remedial courses, and remedial education on the whole, reminds me of the state and stigma of remedial education in the four-year CUNY colleges. CUNY senior colleges, such as Hunter, Baruch, and City, discontinued their remedial courses in grammar and composition for native speakers, English 014 and 015, due, in part, to the stigma associated with students who were not “college ready” and did not have the reading and writing skills that would be on par with other college students. However, disregarding or ignoring this issue, and these students, did not fix or create a solution, but instead it exacerbated the “problem” even further and the gulf between students who were academically succeeding and those who were fall though the cracks widened.

    Just because a student is a native English speaker, or is only fluent in English, does not mean that the student is “college ready’ or is at a writing level that is expected in college level courses. This issue, and more importantly, these students should not be stigmatized and simply pushed under the rug at the sake of the university’s image or financial strain. That is not fair to the students who need those remedial classes to help succeed or the university system in general, for they are not doing their part to ensure academic success for all of their students. Remedial classes, such as the former English courses in CUNY senior colleges and the ones that are discussed in this article, should not only be funded, but championed, because of the long term progress they are generating for the students and for the colleges as a whole.

    Thank you, Mr. Rose, for writing this blog entry. It voiced many of my concerns that I have had over the years and really “hit home” for me, as an alumna from a four-year CUNY college and a current instructor at one as well.


    Rebecca Breech
    Master's Candidate, CUNY Grad
    English 201 Instructor, Hunter College

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Dear Mike,

    You can get funding for this Institute! So many of us are desperate for it. Until that comes to pass, where is the best place for "basic skills" teachers to go to get the research on what we currently know and to exchange ideas about what we're doing in the classroom? I subscribe to NCTE & CCCC journals, but they seem to offer only intermittent discussion of my students and our needs, and I have yet to find an online community talking about research and connecting it to daily life in Developmental Reading and Basic Writing. I'm doing some good work, but it would be so much improved by feedback from other teachers. (The credit for all my good work goes to you and Mr. Kiniry: Critical Strategies for Academic Thinking and Writing is such a great book. Some day I'll write you the long thank-you you deserve.)