Remedial Higher Education in California

The California State University system has succumbed to the overwhelming needs of underprepared students:

Wracked with frustration over the state’s legions of unprepared high school graduates, the California State University system next summer will force freshmen with remedial needs to brush up on math or English before arriving on campus.

But many professors at the 23-campus university, which has spent the past 13 years dismissing students who fail remedial classes, doubt the Early Start program will do much to help students unable to handle college math or English.

“I’m not at all optimistic that it’s going to help,” said Sally Murphy, a communications professor who directs general education at Cal State East Bay, where 73 percent of this year’s freshmen were not ready for college math. Nearly 60 percent were not prepared for college English.

During a session in one of my own remedial college classes this semester, I discussed my notes and advice after reading one set of their essays, and I noted that the past tense of use was used, as in, We used to go to high school.  Invariably, these students had written, We use to go to high school.  Just another example of miswriting based on an exclusively oral culture.

But that’s not the bad part; such instruction is par for the course–no pun intended.  What really shocked me was that after I explained that rule, they argued with me about it.  For a few minutes.  Pretty viciously.  They had to insist that they were right, that the slangy version they assumed to be accurate really was, and that their professor was somehow wrong.  Perhaps their strength in numbers somehow proved to their satisfaction that they could shout me down?  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

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Fall Finals Freshmen Follies

I had some spectacular deja vu two weeks ago as my college classes were studying for finals.  I took them down to the building’s huge main lobby, where I hung butcher paper on the walls, with titles I wrote in the center, based on the major units of the semester.  I broke them into teams, gave them markers, and asked them to make diagrams of major points, themes, and other relevant information from throughout the last few months.  They spent a few minutes at each station, and then rotated to review and build on each other’s work.

My classes this semester were English 98, a remedial class for those whose test scores don’t qualify them to start school with English 101.  They are all freshmen.  Now, many of these students are decent, responsible, talented young people who go on to have great college careers.  But many are not.  And it is during activities like this that I hear grumbling and whining.  Actually, I hear that in almost every class almost every day.

Here’s where the deja vu comes in.  During this review session, a group of four upperclassmen walked by and, observing what we were doing, came over to talk to me.  Continue reading

The Biggest Difference Between High School and College

For years, I’ve taught mostly high school honors classes and remedial college classes.  By a wide margin, the high school students are more literate, more creative, and more productive in every way.  What do they do that’s different? 

They have already learned the key to success: self-motivation.  Most high school students are used to being spoon fed and led carefully by the hand; what makes someone an honors student, by and large, is taking over the reins of their own life.  Not coincidentally, the reason why so many otherwise bright and talented young adults only slide by in high school and fail in college altogether is that they haven’t internalized that idea.

In high school, for instance, the focus is on classwork, while homework and independent study exist to supplement and reinforce the classwork.  In college, however, the focus is on the homework and independent study, and the classwork exists largely to supplement and reinforce what’s done outside of the classroom, by the student, on his or her own.  That’s a transition that many young people have a hard time adjusting to. 

Like any habit, the earlier it’s inculcated, and the more diligently it’s practiced, the more likely it is that someone’s going to be successful at it.

How the NCAA Helped Ruin American High Schools

The NCAA has a rule that remedial high school courses don’t count towards eligibility for college athletics.  I don’t know how other parts of the country have dealt with this, but CCSD’s answer has partly been to reduce / eliminate remedial classes. 

That’s great, right?  All those future college hoops stars are being put into more rigorous classes, just like the NCAA wanted, right? 

No, of course not.  Their rule didn’t suddenly make everyone smarter.  What schools do is simply change the names of classes, removing the “remedial” stigma from the title, while keeping them stocked with the same kids who would have been in remedial classes anyway (thus cheating the rule by “technically” complying with it), or–even worse–those poor kids who need more help get lumped into the regular classes where they push up class sizes, fall behind, cause trouble, irritate and bore the students who are at that level, and still certainly don’t get the experience that the NCAA’s rosy-eyed rule must assume they magically will.

This isn’t to say that all athletes are slow–actually, my experience is quite the opposite–but those who do need slower classes are poorly served by this rule, and the rest of their campus suffers for it, too.  Schools can’t just target the schedules of potential future athletes, so everyone–sports players and not–are equally affected by the policy.  The NCAA could do everyone a huge favor by revising this ineffective, counterproductive rule.