Phi Beta Cons

Teach Students to Read in Grade School

Diverse Education has a piece today on a conference held yesterday in Washington — “Educating for Success: The Nexus Between College Completion and American Competitiveness.” The conference featured Anthony Carnevale and Stan Jones of Complete College America, both of whom argue that our national prosperity depends on getting more students through college. I have to wonder if anyone at the conference played the skunk at the picnic by observing that lots of college graduates today can at best find low-skill jobs, and that the trend of college graduates who work in occupations that call for no academic preparation has been rising steadily. Probably not.

What catches my eye is the apparent acknowledgment that remediation is not very effective. Many students who enter college with such weak basic skills in English and math that they need to take remedial courses don’t graduate. That isn’t surprising. If you take a young person who has just been passed along for twelve years without much if any real attention being paid to his ability to read, write, and do basic math, and then toss him into a couple of remedial courses, will he actually get “caught up” and thus able to do “college-level work”? I doubted that way back during my own teaching career in the ’80s, when I had lots of students who had been through remedial courses and still had language skills that would have been thought poor for fifth graders 40 years ago. I’m afraid that the truth is that students can pass remedial courses without making any permanent learning gains just as they can pass many other college courses without making any permanent gains.

Evidently, the Carnevale/Complete College America folks think it’s important to find out how to make college remediation more effective so that more students will complete their degrees, and thus make the country “more competitive.” Much as I would like to see all of those marginal students actually learn something from college — and nothing would be more helpful to them than improved reading and writing skills — that won’t have any impact on our “competitiveness.” At most, they might be a little better at jobs that have something to do with communication skills. More important, shouldn’t we put our efforts into figuring out why so many high-school graduates now fail to learn the basics of English in grade school?

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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