Saturday, August 1, 2015

What Educators Say About Social Promotion

By Professor Doom

     Last year, legislators, at the behest of higher education administration, removed remediation from higher education. Open admission policies, and the student loan scam, allowed everyone who wanted a free check to come to campus to get one. Trouble was, most of these people had no interest in education, because, well, they were there for the check (many classes, especially at the community colleges, lose 50% or more of the students on check day). Rather than dilute the legitimate education in the real courses, massive remedial programs opened up, and many campuses now offer minimal college level coursework, and are now primarily facilities for extraction of student loan money.

     Unfortunately, the students in the remedial classes weren’t doing well. They were good at collecting the checks (the real reason they were there), but not so good at coursework, even when it was taken down to the third grade level.

     Many people really don’t believe the loan scam is what has warped higher education, so allow me to try another allegory. Suppose that you could go to McDonald’s, and simply by showing up and placing an order, even for the cheapest thing on the menu, you could get a check for $20. Would you go if you had nothing better to do? Of course. I have no interest in eating anything on the McDonald’s menu, but I’d totally stop by, order the least I could get away with, take my free money, toss the food (or, more accurately, foodlike substance) into the trash, and go home afterwards. McDonald’s, of course, would quickly realize that their food was irrelevant, would quickly abandon any pretense of food quality, and instead focus on maximizing profits while giving customers the cheapest possible menu item and handing them the government check.

      This, in short, is what has happened to higher education, and why over 90% of class aren’t college level and have the cheapest possible material in them. It’s part of why even the supposed “actual” college courses often have nothing in them. Legislators listened to administrators, and decided to just get rid of remediation, socially promoting students past the basic material that would give them a chance to succeed in college, if they wanted to even try.

     Unfortunately, administrators didn’t listen to educators, who would have been happy to tell them it’s not the existence of remedial courses that are causing so many students to come to campus and fail.

     Last year, mandatory remediation was removed, putting students that can’t read/write/anything at the 9th grade level directly into college level courses. This year, we see the results: a greatly increased failure rate. Administration was only too happy to say they saw this coming all along, but…imagine if educators had a say in how education should be run. A recent article on Inside Higher Ed was thrilled to make administration look smart regarding the failure of social promotion, but faculty were at least allowed to have their say in the comments section.

     Some highlights, demonstrating the disconnect between administration (who wanted this fiasco) and educators (who were ignored when they tried to prevent it):

The increasing number of under prepared students enrolling in credit bearing courses combined with the increased pressure to increase success and graduation rates at higher education institutions may lead to less rigorous academic courses with more generous grading systems. I have seen this happen in several fields of study. There often is no "quality control" system in check to see what type of learning takes place, but rather the focus is on success rates.

     How is this not obvious? Grade inflation is already prevalent on campus due to these factors. It’s easy to fix, however, and with GPA basically meaningless now, why not even try?

If students can't read and write well, then avoiding English classes is not the solution.

     This highlights a glaring problem with college social promotion. If students that cannot read or write at the 9th grade level are doing fine in the “college” courses, how can you believe those college courses are legitimate? What realistically happens is these students just flounder around on campus for years, accomplishing nothing but deep debt for themselves and fat loot for admin. This is why over 90% of remedial students get nothing from college, despite the promises from admin that a few months of remedial courses will actually make a difference.

     Having those mandatory remedial courses accomplished two important things: it allowed for legitimate college courses to be offered, and it allowed those students that were legitimately there to learn (yes, there are some) a fair chance to play catch up on the years they wasted in school.

At my institution, until recently, if you placed at the bottom you took 4 remedial math classes before getting to college level.

     Imagine, a college student requiring 2 years (four courses) of remedial math class before he could finally make into College Algebra (which, all by itself, was the remedial course of thirty years ago). The open admission/free checks madness that administration cannot figure out causes these courses to pop up, in a vain attempt to find material that even a student who never comes to class can still pass.

      Even a dash of integrity at the administrative level would have prevented the creation of two years of remedial courses, acknowledging that students that don’t have the mental capacity of a 12 year old don’t belong on college campuses. Instead, they were shuttled in, for those sweet, sweet, student loan checks.

Those of us who teach freshman general education or required courses know that failing these courses is very hard. Most profs will bend over backwards to not a fail a student, especially a hard working, marginal one. The "F" grades are no doubt due to the fact that student language and math skills were so poor that they simply gave up on doing written assignments or were utterly unable to work the simplest math problem. This is powerful evidence that the students were REALLY, REALLY not prepared for college.

     Honest, a student that simply tries is going to pass these courses, because that is, realistically, the current standard (it was the standard I used in my decade at community college). Wouldn’t it be neat if educators had some real input into explaining why remediation doesn’t work? Instead, the people that are actually in the classrooms get ignored…

Intermediate algebra (mentioned in the article) earns college credit but is not "college level."

     It’s worth pointing out that College Algebra, the same material students learn in the 10th grade, was a remedial course and is now a college course on campuses across the country. Intermediate Algebra, the same material students learn in the 7th, 8th or 9th grade, was already turning into a college credit course in Florida, but this isn’t country-wide, yet. Right now, “can perform at the 9th grade level” is considered sufficient for college, but it’s just a matter of time before “can perform at the 7th grade level” will be the minimum requirement for college work. 

     Yes, this is an indictment of our horrid public education system, but not that long ago, US higher education was considered the best in the world, attracting the best from everywhere to come here. How long can we maintain that reputation when coursework is diluted down to the material most 12 year olds know?

Another teacher with 20 years of experience agrees with what I’ve been saying about how the material we’re now teaching is well below high school:

It is nearly impossible to help even willing adults achieve a leap from 5th-grade to 12th-grade reading/writing levels in 3 months (one college term), when they already did not achieve this in seven YEARS of schooling past 5th grade , and totally impossible for the high % of remedial students who do not attend classes or complete assignments (based on 20 years of teaching remedial reading/writing classes).

  Again, any educator would agree with the above, and yet the majority of our higher education teaching resources flows into attempting what is, quite obviously, impossible. Even when documenting that most of my remedial students were not attending class or doing assignments, admin still informed me that I needed to maintain an 85% passing rate.

Passing rates can also be inflated. I recently took a graduate level course in which the professor had to post articles (remedial level) on how to read and write effectively because the college grads in the course were unable to write coherent summaries of required reading.

      There is immense pressure on our incredibly vulnerable faculty to inflate those passing rates, and it does lead to aberrant students in even very advanced classes, who quite obviously have no business being there. I even noticed this when I took an 8000 level administration course, some of the students could not write even a single sentence with any resemblance to standard English conventions involving spelling, punctuation, or grammar. 

If the good folks in FL had read the historical literature on the issue of mandatory placement in developmental education they would never have gone down the path so taken.

      These sorts of statements are always a chuckle. Administration simply doesn’t hear anything besides what it wants to hear, so, of course, they will completely ignore all known studies and common sense on this topic.

“In Texas we've come up with a different solution. Put the students who are not ready for college level mathematics into a course that requires, at most, high school level thinking and call the course ‘college level’.”
“…Florida did that decades ago. It is called Liberal Arts Math,…”

     I know, I know, I’ve documented this before, but the gentle reader needs to understand that the things I say in my blog are not the rantings of a lone madman…most everyone in higher education knows what’s going on, and it’s happening most everywhere.
And, tell your faculty that the course must be college-level rigorous but all students must pass.

     Ah, memories. When I taught at a bogus (state) institution, I was told this sort of line many a time. On the surface, it seems like a possible solution: be legitimate in what you cover in your course, but pass everyone. Trouble is, a legitimate course requires work and effort…if you assign anything like that you get student complaints, and admin also makes it clear that student complaints can lead to termination.

      But yeah, you’re often told as faculty to maintain standards and pass everyone, and that guideline is at many for-profit, state, and non-profit schools. Despite this, graduation rates are still low. You need to pass students to keep them on campus (for those sweet, sweet, student loan checks), but graduating students makes the Poo Bah sad (because then no more sweet, sweet, student loan checks). 

      Does the gentle reader see that “sweet, sweet, student loan checks” are the only factor in higher education? Honest, the student loan scam hasn’t helped higher education.

One consequence that I foresee is that a "college algebra" course will become more of a hybrid of "college algebra" and Intermediate Algebra, especially in the rigor of the exams given. As more and more part-time faculty teach such courses, this consequence is very likely to happen because for contingent faculty, their continued employment so often depends on "how their students perform".

      Again, educators know what’s going to happen here. “College Algebra” will just be redefined down from 10th grade math to 8th grade math, and the faculty will be given the option of either keeping their mouth shut, or being fired. This is of course, the heart of the fraud of higher education today, and it’s clear the trend will continue.

It seems to me that the type of student who ignores recommendations and doesn't have an understanding of their abilities is probably going to do poorly regardless of what class you put them in.

     This, ultimately, is why no amount of fiddling with (or removing) remediation will ever be effective on a mass level. Yes, there is a small percentage of remedial students that need, and can be helped, by remedial courses. These are typically people that never had access to even our miserable public school system, but the majority of students who failed to learn the basics in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades really isn’t going to be helped by more of the same. 

     Higher education used to have small, special courses for those few, special students that really had an interest in learning, but for whatever reason had significant gaps in what they already knew. I taught such courses, and they were effective.

      Administration, in their quest for more, more, more of those sweet, sweet, student loan checks bloated out the remedial programs.  Now remedial courses are taught in massive lecture halls by poorly paid and often unqualified adjunct faculty that must follow orders or be terminated…they may have good pass rates, but they’re a waste of time and don’t even help the students that are legitimately there to learn.

     Eliminating mandatory remediation, while still allowing people that have no business on campus to enter the college courses, just further debases higher education in a vain attempt to get even more of those sweet, sweet, student loan checks.


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