Most people who have taught at the college level, with the exception of professors at selective institutions, have seen how painfully ill-prepared for college work many students are. Their reading is weak and often they avoid it as much as possible. Their writing is about what one would have expected from third graders 50 years ago — third graders who hadn’t been paying attention when simple things like the different meanings of “two,” “to,” and “too” was explained. As for math, they struggle with concepts that ought to have been learned in middle school.
Colleges want such students, however, and are happy to put them through remedial (or “developmental” to use the proper euphemism) courses that supposedly get them ready for real college courses. The failure to teach the 3 Rs in earlier schooling naturally has costs and a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education puts the cost at $1.4 billion annually, just for remediation in community colleges. Inside Higher Ed has the story.
The great unanswered question about remediation is whether it works. Many of the students who are placed into remedial courses have educational deficits that are immense since their abilities in the fundamentals have been neglected for many years. When you consider the fact that a majority of American high school graduates, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, are at only “basic” or “below” basic in prose and quantitative literacy, you get a sense of the magnitude of our educational inefficiency. (Only about 5 percent have attained proficiency.) When you take students who are so far behind and put them in a remedial English or math class for a semester, what happens? Is there a stunning transformation? Maybe that occurs sometimes. More often, I suspect, the student passes through his remedial course with only a slight improvement in ability. Then he hunts for the easiest courses offered to accumulate enough credits to graduate.
This is an area calling for more investigation.