Remediation is a massive bottleneck in higher education. Half of the students who show up at community colleges are not college-ready and must complete one or more catch-up courses before they can enter college-level study. Even in the Cal State system, which takes only the top third of California high school students, half of all entering students require remediation.
Here is a guest post from William G. Tierney and Stefani R. Relles. Tierney is a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California. Relles, a former community college instructor, is a doctoral candidate at USC.
Every summer for the past decade, we have conducted a writing program for college-bound, low-income minority students. More than 80 percent of them have never written a formal five-page paper. Instead, they’ve churned out short essay after short essay after short essay. When asked to develop an idea or argument beyond two or three pages, they look dumbfounded.
Sadly, these kids’ writing histories are all too typical of many high-school graduates, especially those who attend low-income schools. If they go on to college, they will probably land in a college remedial-writing course. The National Commission on Writing uses California to illustrate the numbers involved: nearly one in two students enrolling in the Cal State University System will have to take remedial writing; one in three will do so at the University of California.
It gets worse.
The Education Commission of the States reports that only 17 percent of students enrolled in remedial English nationally go on to earn a college degree. That’s a shameful return on what the Gates Foundation estimates to be a $2.3 billion annual investment in remedial programs nationally.
Virtually everyone from President Obama on down says that we need to increase college graduation rates to maintain our global economic competitiveness. To do that, students like those to whom we teach remedial writing will have to be recruited in far greater numbers. The burden for teaching them to write better shouldn’t rest entirely on high schools. Remediation work is also done in post-secondary institutions, especially at community colleges, and higher education needs to do better at fixing the problem they inherit.
Unfortunately, colleges and universities typically blame high schools for the remedial writing problem, and then do nothing. Some myopically say the problem can be managed by lowering standards to raise students’ passing rates. Still others demand ever more accountability from the K-12 system. In the Los Angeles high schools where we work, students already take as many as six state and district academic tests yearly — on top of midterms and finals. More tests don’t address the root problem. Indeed, testing a student without offering a remedy is like subjecting a sick patient to an MRI and then walking away without suggesting a treatment other than saying, “Do something!”
The problem is that college-writing expectations are vague. How is it possible, for example, that 94 percent of students pass the California Exit Exam, but 42 percent of those entering the state’s community colleges are placed in remedial English? One answer is that high-school teachers infer that the timed essay exams used nationally (the SAT essay) and institutionally (the Cal State writing exercise) to measure writing ability are the benchmark. They’re not. According to Jane Wellman of the Delta Project and Bruce Vandal of the Education Commission of the States, these exams are intended to forecast college success, not replace college standards. Research also shows that these types of tests are unreliable indicators of writing strength.
What works? Our 10 years of teaching remedial writing, as well as other research, points to four ways to get students to write better.
• Set specific and understandable goals. Abstract test scores – “You score in the 85th percentile” -- don’t help students, especially first-generation learners, know if they are underprepared to write in college. If students somehow discover they are not good writers, they have no idea what they need to do to improve. Teaching students the skills they need to acquire to write at college level is the first step to making remedial writing a onetime experience.
• Teach students how to revise. What students need to understand is how to make the essay they just wrote better. A teacher’s general comments at the end of an essay, the usual practice, are like an autopsy report: They may tell the student why the paper is weak, but they do not help the writer fix the problem. Research and experience show that students learn best through rewriting their text, a practice enhanced by clear, consistent and meaningful feedback.
• Teach summarizing, not analyzing: Critical thinking in and of itself is not a precursor of good writing. Putting thinking into words, sentences and paragraphs is the endgame, and that crucially involves the ability to summarize material, a more concrete and therefore teachable skill. If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.
• Require more and longer writing. Budgetary pressures have led to increased class sizes, making short-essay assignments – and cursory instructional comments -- the norm. That’s not going to help students improve their writing. Longer papers would make the last-minute, overnight writing session tougher to pull off, if not impossible, and help students develop complex arguments. The more students are assigned manageable writing tasks with successive deadlines, the more opportunities they will have to improve their writing.
These sorts of solutions are not rocket science, but they are, unfortunately, controversial. Adopting them would mean focusing on writing as process rather than as product, an unsettling break for those accustomed to exams and assignments without revision opportunities. But the current remedial writing programs have the dubious distinction of being the first stop on the way to dropping out of college. Postsecondary institutions have to be more involved with unprepared college students like those in our summer classes than simply setting standards or developing yet another test.