Remediation and the Dumbing Down of Campus Standards

Paul Trout

"A majority of high school graduates...lack both the reading comprehension and mathematical skills that they should have acquired in junior high.... One may presume that about half of these substandard students will go on to college."--Paul Gottried

"If we were to discover that a very substantial number of the college entrants we take so much pride in are in fact enrolled in courses in how to read, spell, and add, we might not be so boastful. When it comes to data on remedial education in postsecondary institutions, ignorance may be a necessary condition for bliss."--Laurence Steinberg

"But in recent years in many colleges, more and more of the faculty's time has been devoted to meeting the needs of entering freshmen who read badly, write poorly, and figure inaccurately, if at all. The problem of the deficient student is one that appears at all levels of American education. With the greatly expanding college enrollment, it promises to become one of the major problems of higher education."--Kenneth E. Eble (1962)

"It is unclear how long our best universities can maintain their excellence when the students who enter them and who will subsequently staff them are ill-prepared.... It is an inherently unstable situation and must lead to a decline of standards at all American universities, and probably has already done so."--E.D. Hirsch

"The conclusion is inescapable: More than half of our 'colleges' are not colleges at all, as the rest of the world defines college. They are secondary schools, the highest-cost secondary schools in the world."--Marc Tucker

"What I would like to ask...the colleges and their professors is this: If you are so upset about the number of students who need remedial courses, why did you accept these kids in the first place? Let's face it; there's only one reason: money. If these schools didn't take in kids from the bottom of the academic barrel, many schools would have to fire half their faculty and administrators; a few would have to shut down."


High schools graduate a lot of college-bound students who are not ready for higher education. But not to worry, because colleges and universities are willing to accept these students anyway. But once accepted, these students have to be "accommodated." To flunk them out would be inhumane. This means that, in part, colleges and universities have to provide special programs and classes intended to give these students the writing, reading, calculating and even study skills they did not acquire in high school. As one remedial bureaucrat blithely puts it, "It's unreasonable to think everybody is college-ready, just because they finished high school." Wouldn't it be reasonable, though, to think that college-bound students are ready?

This essay is about "remedial" courses and programs. It argues that these remedial courses do help some students, such as older students coming back to college later in life who simply need a refresher course in algebra or writing to get up to speed. But it also contends, more to the point, that such courses rarely help students with deep-rooted academic deficiencies in reading, writing, and critical thinking. A large number of "remedial" students probably never learn the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in more demanding classes. This essay also argues that remedial programs--often sizable bureaucratic empires--tend to depress academic standards in even non-remedial courses. This effect hurts students who want to get the best education--and the most valuable diploma--they can afford.

Let's take a look inside the least advertised program on campus.

A Remediation Census Report

Remedial courses have been around for a long time, a very long time. In the 1630s, Harvard had to offer courses in remedial Latin, and in 1849, the University of Wisconsin created the first remedial program, offering courses in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Throughout this century, "preparatory" or pre-college courses have been offered at some of the country's best schools.

But since the '60s, remediation has grown so much--thanks to the decay of the high schools and "open admission" policies in higher education--that it has become "the fourth R" of higher education. Remedial programs usually offer classes in English, mathematics, and reading, with some also offering courses in science, study skills, and critical-thinking/reasoning skills. Math is the single biggest area of poor college preparation, followed by composition and reading. But increasingly, students are being enrolled in courses that show them how to study, something that, apparently, they never had to learn to do in high school. Explains one instructor, "we will mention the important subjects of time management, study skills, creativity, healthy habits, memory skills, Internet use, and ethics. We need to teach this generation not only about business, for example, but also how to read the textbooks, absorb the lectures, and produce computer-generated assignments."

Each remediated student takes, on average, about two remedial courses. Almost 26 percent of colleges have separate remediation departments or divisions, with nearly all of them providing counseling, tutoring, and testing. According to one 1993 survey, remediation takes place in 90 percent of community colleges, in about 60 percent of private four-year institutions, and in 65 percent of four-year public institutions. Most remediation occurs at community colleges, where 70 percent of students take at least one remedial course. In four-year colleges, about 30 percent of entering freshmen--55 percent at minority colleges--enroll in at least one remedial course. In private four-year colleges, 13 percent of freshmen must take at least one remedial course.

Naturally, the number of students taking remedial courses varies from school to school, depending on how selective the school is. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, only 2 percent of freshmen take at least one remedial course. At DePaul University (Chicago), about 8 percent of freshmen take remedial courses. But at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 35 percent of freshmen take remedial math, and 9 percent take what is called "preparatory" English. At the City Colleges of Chicago, 50 percent of all new students do some remedial work. At Columbia College, a four-year school in Chicago, 50 percent of the students need remedial work in English. These rates would be higher if all the students who need such courses took them.

The number of students in remedial programs also varies from state to state (numbers are from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation). In Oklahoma, 25 percent of incoming freshmen have to take remedial English, 54 percent remedial math, 15 percent remedial reading, and 6 percent remedial science. In California, 64 percent of the freshmen entering the public system failed the entry-level math test, and 43 percent failed the verbal exam, even though all of these students were in the top third of their high-school graduating classes. Each year more than 2 million college freshmen require remedial instruction in reading or writing or math, with many requiring remediation in two or three areas.

The actual number is probably much higher. Private colleges, which enroll 3 1/2 million students, do not have to report the number who take remedial courses (one reason the number is so low), and most public institutions surely under-report remedial numbers to cover up their low admission standards and to avoid being seen as warehouses for poor students. Some schools minimize the number by reporting only those students who finish remedial courses, not those who drop out.

And many schools minimize the number of remedial students simply by calling "remedial" courses something else. "Remedial" is often replaced by "developmental," "basic skills," "preparatory," "learning-support," "second tier," "sub-freshmen," "equal-opportunity," "clinics," "workshops," "tutorials," "essential," "learning" or "reading" labs, "15-week freshman-orientation seminars about learning how to learn," etc. The term "remedial" carries a stigma, so "developmental bureaucrats" and other administrators want to make the term disappear. As "developmental educators" might put it, remedial courses are considered as support for students identified as potentially having difficulty with the reading, computing, writing, or thinking demands of college. As one administrator advised a new staff member in the remedial program, "Don't call it remedial, even though it is." The higher-education system of Florida, for example, renamed "remedial" education "developmental" education, and then renamed that "college prep," officially eliminating "remediation" by defining it out of existence. And sometimes remedial courses are simply listed as "Algebra," "Basic Writing," and "Grammar" without any tag, even though such material is normally offered in high school, if not elementary school.

Never underestimate the cleverness of colleges to skirt regulations and play games to protect their interest. The Board of Regents of the Montana University System ordered that no remedial courses be offered at either the University of Montana or at Montana State University. Since MSU lets in a number of students who can't compute at a college-level, something had to be done.

What the Math Department does is collect tuition from students in need of remedial math, and then send the money to a private school in Great Falls, who then "hires" professors in the Math Department at MSU to teach remedial courses to those students on this campus. But the courses are listed as being "offered" by the college in Great Falls! Voila! No remedial courses in math at Montana State University. Most college deans could outfox Michael Corleone.

Remarkably, a quarter of schools award college credit for remedial courses, officially approving the dumbing down of high-school education. In 1939 and 1964, no college offered credit for completing essentially high-school courses, and students who completed the remedial course were always required to take and pass the standard college course on the subject. But by 1993, 31 out of 35 schools with remedial courses offered credit for them, and in only 4 of the 26 cases were students required to complete a regular course in the same area. A lot of people have a lot to gain from systematically underestimating the extent of remedial education. State educators can cover up the weak performance of elementary and secondary systems while passing on the cost of teaching basic skills to colleges and universities. Colleges and universities get to fill their dormitories and classrooms with warm bodies. College students get college credit for classes they slept through in high school. And remediation instructors and bureaucrats get to keep their jobs.

Do Remedial Courses Remediate?

This crucial question, remarkably, is seldom asked on campus, and rarely answered. Higher education is clearly reluctant even to collect data on the results of remedial programs; it could be embarrassing. According to a 1989 report, 25 percent of colleges did not furnish data about how many students passed remedial courses, 50 percent would not break down passing rates by race and ethnic background, 47 percent did not reveal how many remedial students came back for sophomore year, 66 percent said they couldn't provide data about retention rates according to race and ethnicity, 81 percent did not track graduation rates of entering freshmen who enrolled in at least one remedial course, and 87 percent did not track the graduation rates of minorities who took remedial courses as freshmen. Or so they say.

The answer to this question largely depends on the academic problem being remediated. A growing number of students in remedial classes are older students coming back to college, or well-educated foreign students seeking to improve their English. Usually bright, well informed, and highly motivated, these students just need to brush up on one or two skills to succeed academically. But truly "remedial" students usually have far more profound academic deficiencies, and in more than one area. Many have never taken algebra, never read a book to the end, never been taught to write and punctuate standard English, and never been challenged to think critically about anything important or complicated. Can remediation prepare these students to succeed in regular college courses?

A simple way to find out if remedial students learn what they need to would be by testing them. But very few colleges require remedial students to pass a test after taking remedial classes. By not collecting or releasing data about the effectiveness of remediation, administrators are free to call the whole enterprise a "success." But there are reasons to think otherwise.

For one thing, most remedial courses are so basic that they probably do little to improve pronounced academic deficiencies in math, reading, writing, and thinking. Educational researcher Laurence Steinberg says that the content of most remedial classes is shallow enough to "bore a competent seventh-grader" (in Remediation in Higher Education, by David W. Breneman and William N. Haarlow, Fordham Report, The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, July 1998, 2.9, 45). Remedial math, according to researchers who visited campuses across the country, is uniformly taught at a very simplistic level, "not at all close to the level expected in a regular collegiate Math 101 course." In one "shockingly remedial" math class observed at one community college, the instructor had "to review the rules of addition and subtraction of positive and negative integers" (in Breneman and Haarlow, 18). At a four-year college in Chicago, a student taking a remedial reading course was allowed to interpret a book about a man who died in the Alaskan wilderness not with a written analysis or even an oral presentation but with a dance routine. Even the student knew this was going to be easy: "At the end, I'll be somewhere lying around. It won't be hard if I bring my imagination to it." No, nothing should be hard.

Students in remedial English classes, on-site examiners found, "were markedly unprepared for freshman English." Here's a couple of typical course descriptions that reveal why. At North Carolina State University, English 110: Developmental English introduces college students to "Parts of speech; principles of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation; vocabulary study; composition of sentences, simple paragraphs, and short essays." The even more selective University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) offers English 10: Basic Writing, required of incoming students with verbal SAT scores 400 or below! Kids who score 400 may not be ready for high school, let alone a top-notch competitive university. At some schools, such as Columbia College, students who score at the lowest level on a reading exam--including some who have trouble deciphering basic passages of written English--are required to take an hour of tutoring a week. But an hour a week is not likely to compensate for 17 or 18 years of deprivation.

Graduation rates also cast doubt on the effectiveness of remedial courses. Only about 20 to 25 percent of those enrolled in remedial English eventually graduate, as compared with about 40 percent for non-remediated students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the more remedial courses a student takes, the less chance of that student graduating: 55 percent of those who took no remedial courses, and 47 percent of those who took only one remedial course, earned a bachelor's. But only 24 percent of those who took three or more remedial courses did so.

The fact that some remediated students manage to graduate may reveal less about the effectiveness of the program and more about the low academic standards of non-remedial classes. Without rigorous exit exams, one cannot be sure that anyone who graduates from college nowadays knows what a college graduate should know.

Again, when measuring the success of remediation, a lot depends on the nature of the deficiency being remediated. Older students coming back to college to get, let's say, a business degree, and even recent high-school graduates who didn't get good instruction in high-school math, can probably remedy their deficiencies with one course.

But deficiencies in writing and reading, as well as critical thinking, are another matter. To be able write clearly and cogently, a student has to write a lot for a long time (and read a lot too). To be able to comprehend complex books, a student has to read a lot for a long time. Deficiencies in these two foundational powers (they are more than skills) must be remedied very early in the child's life, not at 18 or later, if the effort is to do any real good. As psychologist Christopher Jencks explains, "by the time students apply to college, their minds have developed in particular ways: some neural paths have grown strong and others have atrophied. The mental differences among seventeen-year-olds do not completely determine their future, but neither are they easy to change." One remedial-program administrator says that the students he sees managed to get through high school without doing much reading at all. "The high school teachers recognize that students won't or can't do the reading, and the students develop strategies for getting around it. We're trying to create readers among young people who don't read and don't like to." The attempt to remediate deeply ingrained cultural and cognitive traits in young adults works too rarely to be a realistic educational and social policy.

When the foundational "powers" of reading and writing (as well as logical thinking) are not acquired early, the student is deprived over the years of further intellectual development that is necessarily based on having these skills. Deficiencies in reading and writing, then, are not just deficits in themselves, but permanent handicaps that further impoverish the student's mind in all other areas. These deficiencies are probably never adequately remediated, and no amount of remediation will ever allow these students to catch up to others who had the use of these "powers" over the years. Students who cannot read with understanding and write with clarity and precision are handicapped forever. This fact provoked one remedial educator to wonder if "weak readers should be allowed in college at all."

Rudy Gadamke is a 20-year veteran of teaching remedial thinking skills. Half the students in his class at City College of New York were admitted with small scholarships, even though they could not read at a fourth-grade level, because they were deemed to have been disadvantaged by poverty. Though deeply sympathetic to these students, Gadamke, himself a graduate of CCNY, understands their inalienable limitations. "A lot of these kids," he has to admit, "don't really think." They have never developed the slowly acquired habit of forming generalizations, of thinking critically. This means that they can't make sense of what they read, so they hate reading. Another vicious circle. In a class exercise, he says, only one out of five students could interpret this headline: "STUDENT TURNOUT NIL AT GAMES." Most had a tough time with "nil" and "turnout."

Troubled by the state of education at CCNY, Professor Gadamke wrote the following memo to his dean:

There is a fire in my gut that tells me that what we are doing has little to do with education. Or learning. Or teaching. Something has gone wrong here, and the student who arrives at our door with a fourth-grade reading level, and the administrator who herds him into a College Skills class of twenty-five students, and the professor who teaches that course, and the committee who designed it, and the curriculum committee which approved it are all locked into a silent contract of fraud.... But by what sort of mental alchemy can we justify our silence? (in James Traub, "Class Struggle," The New Yorker, 19 September 1994, 82)

After the National Commission on Excellence in Education and other studies appeared in the mid-'80s, Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, makes this discouraging point: "Absent from all thee the near universal experience that children who do not learn to read, write, and count fairly well by the time they are in the fourth and fifth grades, do not learn in school later, no matter what kind of remediation we provide."

This is why deficiencies in literacy skills significantly lower the odds of a student's completing any degree. As Clifford Adelman, a senior researcher with the U. S. Department of Education, warns, "We cannot continue to let high-school graduates believe that they have a good chance of earning a college degree if they leave high school with poor reading skills." This is true, yet some colleges accept freshmen with reading abilities between third and sixth grade (Laurence Steinberg, Beyond the Classroom, 38).

At best, students with pronounced problems in reading and writing need special and expert tutoring to make even modest progress. But colleges rarely provide such expert attention. In California and most other states, teachers in remedial programs merely need a master's degree, so programs are often staffed with graduate students busy working on their terminal degrees. Even those with a background in "developmental studies" are not qualified--according to one researcher--"to teach in any classroom, particularly in one with underprepared students, because they are often ignorant of any methodology for teaching these students" (in Breneman and Haarlow).

Pronounced deficiencies in reading, writing, and thinking often betoken, when they do not help create, an inherently limited intellect. It is an unpleasant fact that poor parenting, inadequate prenatal care and nutrition, culturally deprived households, alcohol or drug abuse, and bad genes often lower a child's learning capacity. This is why so many caring parents, whatever their income, try to enrich their child's environment in whatever ways they can afford. Recent experiments of neuroendocrinologist Joe Tsien (Princeton) have indicated that enriched environments can even make up for impaired cognitive function. It is estimated that an I.Q. of approximately 110 (and above) is needed to successfully master college-level material, or what was once college-level material. At about 100, a student becomes a 50/50 risk. I've had a few students with very limited mental ability, and while I did what I could to help them learn the material, they couldn't, sometimes despite their best efforts. I suspect that no amount of remediation by the best experts could have given them what they need but lack. In the past, these students would not have made it into college and would have been encouraged to find other ways to make use of their limited talents and acumen.

Of course the True Believers who staff remedial programs will point to the number of students who "pass" remedial courses as proof they are effective. In the rare instance where such data are available, the pass-rate figures should be viewed suspiciously. A number of those who teach remedial courses routinely pass most if not all of their students out of "compassion" or ethnic solidarity (aka "affirmative grading"). Statistics about "pass" rates tell us less about how much students have learned than about what teachers are willing to say they have learned. One professor wrote to me recently that he had a student in his Basic Writing class who simply could not read. "The counselor who proctored his reading placement test this summer let the student cheat so as not to 'hold him back.'" At Hostos Community College (part of the massive CUNY system discussed below), those who run the English as a Second Language program have "traditionally engaged in test fraud, distributing low-level ESL finals to students in advance," according to Nicholas Stix, who teaches there (Campus Reports, 14.5, May 1999, 5). The extent of the fraud is revealed by the tragic fact that almost all of these student flunk the higher level, CUNY-wide Writing Assessment Test, which is not available in advance.

Remediation is ineffective in another way. Remedial education rarely if ever attempts to repair student ignorance of literature, history, economics, geography, art, philosophy, or world events. The assumption is that students acquire such information in their regular college classes. But students who come to college without this background or contextualizing knowledge have such a hard time reading, understanding, and analyzing course materials that they often graduate from college just about as culturally illiterate as when they entered it.

Remedial courses may help a few students, but they are hardly the solution to the problem presented by dumbed-down high school grads who are accepted into college.

Remediation Erodes Academic Standards

Besides being largely ineffective, remediation undermines the academic standards of secondary and higher education.

By providing poorly prepared high-school graduates with basic instruction in writing, reading, and math, colleges and universities are sending the wrong message to high schools and to high-school students. They are saying, "Administrators and teachers, you don't have to do your job because we are willing to do it for you. Students, you don't have to apply yourself during these 'fun' years, because what you don't know or can't do won't keep you out of college, and you can learn what you need there." As Lois Cronholm, former interim president of Baruch College of the City University of New York, explains, "if we repeat pre-college work in college, there will never be sufficient incentive for the high schools to raise their standards."

Thanks to college remediation programs, high schools don't have to have meaningful exit standards or core knowledge and skill requirements or incentives to get students to take hard classes and learn more, especially during senior year, which has been robbed of purpose thanks to early-admission decisions. I constantly run into students who are amazed that I expect them to have read or learned something in high school. Students themselves seem to expect professors to start at the "beginning." Most introductory courses in the humanities and even the sciences are now functionally remedial.

The dumbing down of high-school education hurts not only those students bound for college but those headed for the workforce. These kids have only K through 12th grade to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to make a living. If secondary education doesn't educate these kids and give them the skills society needs, they really will be stuck in dead-end jobs. Should colleges ever refuse to accept and remediate high-school graduates not yet ready for prime time, high schools would have to do a better job of educating all high-school students, those headed to college and those headed to work.

Remediation also hurts college education in a number of ways. For one thing, remedial classes take up physical space, leaving less room for regular instruction and research. As a result, colleges have to spend money to build more classrooms and research facilities, leaving less money for improving the quality of undergraduate education for the majority of students.

Remedial programs also take up curriculum "space." Throughout the country, advanced courses are eliminated to make room for "basic" or "introductory" courses that are either literally or functionally remedial. Remedial math courses, for example, now make up 25 percent of all math courses taught at four-year colleges. This is a sizable waste of precious resources.

Remediation also lengthens the time it takes students to earn an undergraduate degree, adding costs and often promoting aimless academic drift.

Even worse, remediation undercuts a school's incentive to raise admission standards. Why raise them when the academic deficiencies of students who are admitted can be--so it is thought--remediated? So in a sense the very existence of a remedial program on campus helps suppress admission standards, making it more likely that poorly prepared students are admitted and move into the remedial program, creating a vicious circle that dumbs down the entire campus. For these students won't stay only in the remedial program. Many will also enroll in regular courses, increasing the pressure on professors to lower academic standards to accommodate them. Ninety-eight percent of schools allow students enrolled in remedial skills courses to take regular courses at the same time. As a result, remedial programs contribute to the dumbing down of undergraduate education across the campus.

Most administrators turn a blind eye to this dynamic. Revenues are based on enrollments so administrators have a perverse economic incentive to vacuum up bodies to fill desks and dorms. This may explain why 40 percent of colleges providing remedial education do absolutely nothing to reduce the need for remedial education. That would entail improving high-school education and raising entrance standards. It's easier to handle the problem by providing "at risk" students--now a sizable contingent of the student body--with less demanding courses and watered-down policies (no-penalty drops, end-of-semester withdrawals, softer suspension regulations, etc.).

To help remedial students through the system, administrators sometimes "encourage" faculty members who teach non-remedial courses to be "sensitive" to the "needs" of "at risk" students. In short, pass them: don't flunk them. A geography professor who required 11th-grade math in an introductory course ran into trouble when half the class flunked. The students complained to the chair, who canceled the class for the next year. The hapless teacher was told, "Until I am sure that Geography 100 will be taught in a nonmathematical fashion, it will no longer be offered." The New York Post reported that City College of New York professors without tenure have been told by administrators to pass students regardless of failing work. "The result," according to one professor, "is that...illiterates are being graduated from this college." Most critics remain anonymous or keep silent, for fear of being labeled "racist," the epithet du jour for silencing people with unwelcomed ideas and facts. The lowering of standards across the board is the only way administrators can effectively deal with the problem of mismatch brought on by the low-admission/remediation dynamic.

Some professors, however, do not dumb down their courses. One of them is John Palmer, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). Over a five-year period (1994-98), Professor Palmer's 71 "at risk" minority students in his Introductory Biology course earned 50 F's, 21 D's, and nothing higher. Their scores on machine-graded multiple choice exams averaged 46 percent, compared with a course average of 72 percent. The same dismal fate befell "at-risk" students in other biology courses taught by different instructors (including the winner of one of the university's coveted Distinguished Teaching Awards).

Although Professor Palmer was blamed for making these badly misled "special admits" feel "distressed" and unsure of their academic ability, those really responsible were the administrators who made these minority students pawns in a racial game designed to make white administrators look good to other whites further up the administrative ladder. How else to explain the admission of 47 students with a high-school GPA below 2.0 at a university where the average GPA of incoming freshmen is 3.09? At one campus after another, administrators have made it clear that all they care about is meeting their quota of X number of blacks on campus, regardless of whether these students fail and feel miserable, and regardless of the effects on academic standards.

The Functionally Remedial Curriculum

Remedial programs never shrink; they expand, suctioning more poorly prepared students to campus. As the number of such students grows, instructors are forced to accommodate their academic deficiencies by making classes less demanding, less challenging, easier, in a humane effort to reach students "where they are." In essence, extensive remediation encourages other courses to become functionally remedial. This might be called the ripple effect--low standards beget lower standards.

Even now, leaders in higher education freely admit, as did Steven Sample, President of the University of Southern California (LA), that "the first year or two of higher education in America is largely remedial by world standards. Even students at our best universities have to play catch-up." What this means is that undergraduate education is increasingly taking over the tasks of high school throughout the college curriculum.

Here is how one of my students answered the question, "in what way is college becoming like high school?"

The major way that college is becoming like high school is the lower level classes. These lower level classes have become like repeats of high school classes. Student are coming to college less and less prepared. This is forcing colleges to offer remedial lower level classes without calling them remedial. These classes cover subject material that should be covered in high school and students should know before coming to college. The lower level math classes here at MSU are a joke. They cover material that I learned in eigth [sic] and ninth grade, even seventh grade. There is no reason that colleges should have to teach this material. Colleges are supposed to be for higher education and advanced learning, not for repeats of high school courses. Required classes for getting into colleges should be raised, this would solve the problem of having to offer remedial courses at colleges.

The whole curriculum has to be dumbed down in part because many remedial students are allowed to take regular courses before they are fit to do so. As I mentioned, 98 percent of schools allow students enrolled in remedial skills courses to take regular courses at the same time. Since the budgets of departments and colleges are based on enrollment (lower enrollments mean less tuition income, smaller budgets, and fewer faculty lines), there is a strong incentive for departments to welcome remedial students into non-remedial courses. Remedial bureaucrats encourage this policy because they want their charges to feel competent enough to take courses outside the remedial program, even when the students aren't ready for the material. The hope is that "compassionate grading" will allow these students to "experience success" in even regular courses.

The presence of remedial and poorly prepared students in regular courses pressures faculty to address their "special needs." To translate, professors have to make their courses easier, to reduce course requirements, to lessen required reading, to inflate grades--to dumb down their classes. At City College of New York, the nation's first remedial university, some regular courses have been so dumbed down, according to CCNY instructor Robert Berman, that they merely require regular attendance for a passing grade. Gadamke complains that "kids who can hardly get through my course pass on and get an A in World Civ. Something is wrong here. The professor faced with three-out-of-four students failing in his course will not have the heart to fail them."

As Robert Costrell, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), explains,

The presence of large numbers of remedial students inevitably creates pressures to reduce standards in the non-remedial classes in which they enroll. When faculty face a wider variation in preparation of those in the same class, this makes it difficult to maintain the standards that would best serve the middle and top students. Some faculty will resist the pressure to relax standards, but others will not. This can be exacerbated when resources are allocated among departments in part on the basis of enrollments. Faculty are then under heightened pressure to adjust standards to the lower average quality of students admitted, in order to maintain the department's enrollments and its claim on university resources. (qtd. in Breneman and Haarlow 29)

Laurence Steinberg is another who believes that the typical college curriculum has been so "dumbed down" that courses which once would have been called "remedial" are now offered as bone fide academic courses. He explains how it can be done without anybody outside the department being the wiser. When a one-semester statistics course in the Psychology Department at Temple University became too hard for students, it was split in two; students now took two semesters to learn the same material their predecessors had learned in one, but now students earned eight credits doing it instead of just 4. Outsiders examining student transcripts would think that students today know twice as much statistics as earlier ones (48)!

Functional remediation is also bootlegged into the regular curriculum under the guise of semester-long freshman-orientation seminars in study skills or "learning how to learn," one of the most bald-faced acknowledgments imaginable that colleges accept kids who aren't ready for college-level material.

Another course that has become functionally remedial is the contemporary composition course. In the past, writing was required as part of literature courses, in which students read, and wrote about, fairly demanding literary works. And even courses focused on writing itself usually contained a healthy amount of reading and instruction about rhetoric, grammar, style, and argumentation. Here is the course description of "Freshman English" from the 1926-27 Yale catalogue: "Careful study of the following books: Shakespeare's King Henry IV (Part I), Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear; Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship, French Revolution; selections from Ruskin's Modern Painters and Stones of Venice; poems of Tennyson, Keats, Arnold, and Masefield. More extensive reading in general literature. Regular and systematic practice in writing." This list of works would now be too daunting for most English majors.

Students who couldn't hack it could remain in the class only by meeting after hours with an instructor to study grammar, punctuation, and spelling. This tutorial workshop carried no college credit and the material had to be passed before the student could graduate. The first alternative to freshman English to appear in the Yale catalogue (1934) was not a remedial course but "Advanced Freshman English," which compressed the reading of the freshman and sophomore courses into one year for exceptionally well-prepared students.

As the number of semi-literate students grew during the 1970s and 1980s, colleges offered more and more courses in "composition." But these courses were not nearly as rigorous as those in the past. They did not require students to read difficult books, or sometimes any books at all! Their sole preoccupation was tying to teach students essentially high-school material, everything from paragraph structure to punctuation (see "The Righting of Writing," Time, 19 May 1980).

Here's a description of a typical freshmen comp class (this one called English 101: Writing American English): "[The course] stresses the organization, development, and support of ideas and perspectives in written discourse, familiarization with library resources, and application of the rules and conventions of standard American English." This course in how to use a library and punctuation marks satisfied core requirements (see Chapter 4).

Nowadays one cannot be sure that even these basics are covered in freshman comp courses. In my department, freshman-comp instructors have considerable freedom to choose the topic of the course, with some focusing on movies, others on quilting, and others on God knows what. Whether or not the mechanics of writing, spelling, and punctuation are ever meaningfully engaged is also hard to determine. There are now all kinds of "approaches" to teaching composition, and many of them try to avoid the grunt work of showing students how to craft a decent sentence, how to punctuate it so the reader can negotiate the phrasing, how to structure a paragraph, how to tie paragraphs together, etc. Many of those in the composition trenches have come to the same conclusion as Louis Menand, who announced in the pages of The New Yorker (2000) that it is hopeless to untangle the "the hearsay and delusion and grammatical superstitions" students learn in high school. Some of these have surrendered themselves to what education critic Thomas F. Bertonneau has described as an "ideology of illiteracy, which rejects the cumulus of literate experience in the name of a spurious liberation, and which enshrines aspects...of oral language. Repeatedly and emphatically, current pedagogical theory embraces the subjectivity, the emotionality, and the argumentative relativism that are characteristic traits of oral language...." Mercifully, there is no test anywhere along the line to reveal if students learn anything about writing.

In some instances, even upper-division writing courses have become functionally remedial. A student in my Advanced Composition course in Fall 2000 wrote in her class journal: "I can imagine that it is frustrating as a teacher to teach an advanced composition class in which many students still don't know the basics from previous classes.... The introductory writing class that is required to graduate just doesn't seem like enough to me." Composition-lite represents a considerable dumbing down of the undergraduate curriculum. At most universities, the composition program is a vast empire occupying enormous space and energy. During a typical semester at Montana State University, the English department offers 50 sections of courses in composition but only 25 in all other areas (literature, language, and pedagogy). And a lot of departments throughout the country depend on the English department to train their majors in the rudiments of good writing.

Many of the comp courses could be eliminated if high schools taught composition competently, if high-school English teachers were trained competently, and if colleges accepted only students who wrote competently.

Eventually, remediation, if left unchecked, will dumb down even graduate and professional schools. It is already starting to. The University of Miami School of Law now provides "academic-support programs," including weekly sessions with "writing tutors" for post-graduate students admitted thanks to lower standards (see "Students' Odds of Getting Into Law School Improve, but Their Qualifications Drop," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 January 1998, A41).

K-16 education is in the fix it is because administrators don't bear the costs of low admission standards. These costs are borne by those students who are ill-served by admission-office generosity; they are born by parents and high schools, who can no longer credibly urge the young to work hard in order to get into college; they are born by better prepared students who find their educations diminished by low standards; and, they are born by faculty who face the challenges both of educating students with little preparation and aptitude for higher education, and then of dealing with the anguish of young people who are in over their heads, sometimes through no fault of their own (in Breneman and Haarlow, 36).

New York Mayor Giuliani put it well when he attacked the decline of academic standards at the City University of New York:

By eliminating any meaningful standards of admission and continually defining down standards for continuation, the entire meaning and value of a college education has been put in jeopardy for the many who are ready, willing, and able to meet and exceed higher standards. (qtd. in Breneman 27)


Remediation has been part of higher education from the beginning because it serves a purpose. Sometimes highly motivated, intelligent, and by-and-large well-prepared students need a bit of help in a problem area. But when remediation is asked to do more than it can do, it instead contributes to the destruction of the very performance standards it is intended to preserve.

The point where remediation has gone too far is hard to determine and varies from campus to campus. Perhaps the most effective way for each institution to avoid the unintended consequences of too much remediation is to do whatever it can to reduce and indeed eliminate the need for remediation, but to live with what survives. The effort to eliminate remediation, however, must be sincere and thorough if that element that survives of it is not to swell.

Whatever reforms an institution decides on should be phased in so that high school and their students have time to prepare for them. For example, four-year schools could reduce the number of remedial courses by 10 percent each year over nine years.

A few high schools in Virginia and West Virginia have responded to the remediation crisis in their states by offering warranties certifying to colleges and employers the competence of their graduates. If a college or employer finds the graduate needs remedial work, the school district picks up the tab for the course.

High schools and colleges could collaborate in offering to under-prepared college-bound students intensive, summer-long workshops in study skills or writing or prose analysis or calculation, getting students readier to take performance exams for admission or for final acceptance. In Ontario, Canada, 17 high schools encourage college-bound students to take, risk-free, the College Board Computerized Placement Test for Sentence Skills and Reading so that students could find out what is needed for success in college. By objectively informing students that they are bound for remedial English classes, or rejection, unless they improve their skills, the test motivates students to master language skills and encourages teachers to raise standards and requirements. A distinguished researcher in the U.S. Department of Education has observed, "If schools and colleges join in a concerted effort to raise our students' basic literacy, the need for remediation in higher education should drop in direct proportion to the extent of the effort."

A crucial reform would be for colleges and universities to use pre-admission exams in writing, reading, and, for students in certain majors, math. The exams could be written by external experts and graded according to prevailing campus standards by senior professors in the relevant disciplines.

Four-year colleges could also require high-school students seeking admission to take college-preparatory courses. Older than average students returning to college may have to demonstrate preparedness in other ways.

Students who narrowly flunk one of these exams could be admitted under the condition that they take an intensive tutorial in that area and retake the exam, with perhaps the passing grade set a bit higher. Those who flunk are rejected (students may reapply for admission later). If a student requires remediation only in writing or needs to repeat an intermediate-algebra course, four-year colleges could handle the problem fairly effectively. But they cannot effectively remediate more daunting deficiencies, and they defraud students when they pretend otherwise.

Four-year institutions could reduce the amount of remediation they offer by shifting remediation, when possible, to two-year institutions in the area. The California State University system wants to reduce the number of remedial students to just 10 percent of the entering class by 2007. Two-year colleges will be expected to do most of the remedial work in the system. As Professor Palmer (University of Massachusetts) explains, "the sensible thing for an under-prepared student with college aspirations to do is to begin at a community college where classes are small enough for a good deal of personal attention, and where courses are less rigorous" (in Breneman and Haarlow, 33-34). This is also a good place for disengaged students to rid themselves of their adolescent attitudes toward education.

Four-year institutions could also minimize the negative effects remediation has on campus academic standards by requiring students to take off-campus online remedial courses or remedial courses at for-profit facilities. A company called Smarthinking offers 24-hour academic assistance to students taking popular undergraduate courses, the sort of help needed by those with less pronounced academic deficiencies. In Maryland, since 1995, instructors from Sylvan Learning Systems, a private education firm, have taught some of the remedial pre-algebra and algebra classes at Howard Community College. Howard wanted to free up faculty members to teach more college-level courses and see if Sylvan could achieve better results than Howard had. It did, using the same material and tests. Eighty percent of the students in the Sylvan classes earned a C or higher, compared to 56 percent of those in Howard classes.

The California State University system's experiment with commercial online courseware to remediate math deficiencies seems to be working better than traditional courses did, but, again, only a properly rigorous "exit" exam will reveal if students are ready to move on to regular courses.

If community colleges are not to become "remediation mills," K through 12 education is going to have to improve significantly. To upgrade K through 12 education, colleges and universities, led by experts in disciplinary fields, are going to have to reform the training of primary and secondary teachers. The comprehensive literacy problems that force students to take remedial-reading courses require remedies more far-reaching than even community colleges can provide. Primary education must be encouraged to adopt more effective, even if more traditional, ways of teaching reading, and secondary education must be encouraged to emphasize reading more.

This country's educational system is so vast, complex, and intertwined that it's sometimes hard to know where to begin repairing it. But a good place to start is the door to college, especially when those who pass through it enter remedial classrooms.

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