Politics & Policy

Unprepared

The problem of high-school graduates.

As the former superintendent of the second-largest school district in the nation, the Los Angeles Unified School District, I was faced with many challenges — unsafe schools, high dropout rates and an entrenched educational bureaucracy focused on self-preservation. One of the biggest challenges has not received the attention of these other issues, but is critically important to our future — the problem of students graduating from high school fundamentally unprepared for college.

This problem, however, is not just specific to Los Angeles. It is a growing problem that affects every school district in America.

Nationally, more than one-third of incoming college freshmen enroll in at least one remedial course during college. At community colleges, where much of our next generation of technology workers receive their training and apprenticeships, that number jumps to 43 percent.

These numbers increase in many states, often to alarming levels. The California State University — the largest university system in the country — reported that more than 60% of incoming freshman had to enroll in remedial math and/or English classes. Seventy percent of students in Indiana’s community colleges needed remediation in 2005 and more than 80% of students in Oklahoma’s community colleges are enrolled in a remedial course.

Minorities are faced with an even greater disadvantage. Black and Hispanic students are half as likely as white students to graduate from high school prepared for the college course load. As a result, over 40 percent of black and Hispanic require remediation in college.

These numbers are striking, but what do they mean? What impact do they have on our students, our schools and even our society?

First, it means that more and more of our students are falling behind their peers. When an incoming freshman discovers he or she has fallen behind their peers — that they are unprepared for the standard course load — they struggle to catch up. Most of them never do — 70 percent of college students who enroll in one or two college level remedial courses fail to earn a college degree within eight years.

Second, it means higher education costs for families, schools and taxpayers. According to a new report released by Strong American Schools, a student taking two remedial courses in a public four-year institution will spend up to $2500 in additional education costs. The total cost to families who have students who enroll in remedial classes in public college is roughly $800 million. Moreover, the total educational costs for remedial education run up to $2.9 billion annually.

We cannot allow this to continue.

To stem the tide of remediation, we must act now. We must put in place exacting standards that expect the best from our students. If we do not expect the best, we will not get the best. We know that the rigor of a high school student’s course load is one of the best predictors of future success in college. Without strong standards and expectations, we will continue to fail our students by not preparing them for the challenges ahead.

We also must put quality teachers in every classroom in America. Let’s begin by increasing pay for our best performing teachers and those who teach subjects like math, science or special education and in under-performing, at-risk schools. If we provide strong incentives, we will increase our teacher quality — which means the quality of our schools — dramatically.

And we must provide our students and teachers with the adequate time and support they need to reach these expectations. Many students would benefit from extended time in math and English and others would benefit from extra time for enrichment courses. Students deserve the time they need to prepare for the rigors of college life.

We have just been through two political conventions. But the solution to the education crisis is not about political parties or candidates. It’s about our children and about their futures. We must constantly ask ourselves “What is in the best interest of our students?”

The time to end the status quo in education is now. We cannot continue to just do more of the same.

— Roy Romer is a three-term former Governor of Colorado. After serving as chairman of the Democratic Nation Committee, Romer served as superindentant of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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