The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are American students grossly unprepared for college?

It has become a common refrain from school reformers that a very large percentage of high school graduates must take remedial classes when they get to college. Are they right? Award-winning Prinicipal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York  looks at this issue in the following post. She has been exposing the problems with New York’s botched school reform effort for a long time on this blog. (You can read some of her work here, herehere,  here, and here.)

Burris was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by thousands of principals teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

I am weary of the lie that increasing numbers of public high school graduates are grossly unprepared for college. The picture painted is one of inept students roaming college campuses unable to operate pencil sharpeners or read their class schedules. We are told it is a national emergency. And the villain, of course, is the usual suspect—the American public high school. The lie, like Pinocchio’s nose, gets bigger every day as the facts about college remediation are  exaggerated  and distorted by those who know better.

We just heard it from none other than Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  Here is what he said while praising the Match charter schools of Massachusetts[1].

According to Boston Globe columnist, Scot Lehigh, Duncan said the following, referring to education in the Commonwealth:

“The secretary [Duncan] offered this sobering statistic to underscore his point: “Forty percent of your high-school graduates are taking remedial classes when they go to four-year universities. That’s a staggering number… Four in 10 of your high school graduates aren’t ready for college.”

 What is “staggering” is the gross inaccuracy of the claim. Here are the facts:

  • Twenty-two percent of the students who attend four-year state universities in Massachusetts and 10 percent of the students who attend the University of Massachusetts take at least one remedial course.  That group (students who attend four-year public colleges) comprises 28 percent of all high school graduates in the Commonwealth.
  • Thirty percent of all Massachusetts graduates attend private four-year colleges.  Although I could not find remediation rates for such students, we know that nationally 15 percent of students who attend not-for-profit four-year colleges or universities take remedial courses.

Using the above, I estimate that the percentage of students in Massachusetts who attend four-year colleges and take remedial courses is roughly 17 percent, not the 40 percent that Duncan claimed.

Where remedial rates are at their highest are in the state’s community colleges. According to this report by the Massachusetts Department of Education, 60 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course.  This would be a far higher rate than reported for public community colleges by the National Center of Educational Statistics, which provides a national rate of 24 percent (down from 30 percent in 2000).

Now let’s examine the facts about the community colleges of Massachusetts:

  • Less than one-third of all community college students are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students.
  • The other two-thirds belong to one or more of the following categories: part-time students, adult returning students, or students seeking a certificate.
  • The campuses are open-enrollment—students do not need SATs, good grades or even a high school diploma—a GED will suffice.
  • The smallest share of high school graduates attending college in Massachusetts choose community college (22 percent).

If we combine the three rates (public 4-year, private four-year and two-year public colleges), and include all of the non-traditional students who attend two-year colleges in the mix, the remediation rate is approximately 29 percent. Even that number does not come close to Duncan’s 40 percent.

There are three explanations that come to mind when I consider what Duncan said.  Either the reporter did not accurately report what was stated (it was written as a direct quote), the secretary deliberately deceived the reporter in order to promote charter schools and influence the legislature’s vote on the charter cap, or the secretary has no idea what he is talking about.

Arne Duncan is not alone in misstating the facts. The Business Alliance of Massachusetts made the 40 percent claim here in its promotion of the Common Core State Standards — although at least it did not claim it was a four-year college rate.  However, it also excluded the nearly one-third of students who attend private college.

Others have made the 40 percent claim as well. During a recent discussion on the Common Core on NPR, Achieve president, Michael Cohen, gave the 40 percent remediation rate, claiming it to be a national figure.  I was a participant on the program, and I quickly pointed out that according to a 2013 study of the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the actual percentage is 20 percent. Readers can find that study by the U.S. Department of Education here.  Unlike the numbers that are being carelessly bantered about, the NCES study is research that explains methodology and limitations.  Its data is based not only on input from colleges, but from those who are paying the remediation bill—college students.

No one celebrates when even one college student needs remediation.  As a high school principal, I have always assumed responsibility for preparing students for post secondary education.  But some of the responsibility falls on the colleges as well.  In response to a previous Answer Sheet blog post of mine, Michael Sentance, the author of Massachusetts Governor Weld’s 1991 education plan, as well as a contributor to the 1993 reform law, contacted me.  He shared this policy brief from Harvard University that demonstrates that college quality is an important part of the puzzle when we talk about issues of college success.

There are big questions that must be pondered.  What should be the response of the community college when it creates an open enrollment “we welcome all students” environment?  Is the assignment of students to non-credit bearing courses a reasonable strategy given the many purposes that the community college now serves?  Can students be mainstreamed into credit-bearing courses at higher rates, rather than be placed in remedial courses that often do not work? These are some of the issues discussed in this frank report on community colleges entitled “Time is the Enemy.”

Meanwhile, Americans need to know that the sky is not falling.  The National Center for Educational Statistics provides a far more accurate picture of remedial rates than those the Common Core reformers would have the public believe.  It is also important to know that the United States is No. 4 in the world — just behind Canada, Israel and Japan—on the percentage of adults with college degrees.

There are two important takeaways from this story.  First, is that misinformation is part of a continuing strategy to paint a picture of American public schools as failures in order to sell the public the Common Core, charter schools and the corporate reform agenda.

The second takeaway is that fact-checking is too often ignored by the press.  The distortions are repeated even when, as in this case, common sense should call them into question.   It is the responsibility of the press, not the public, to get the story straight and make sure the truth is told.

[1] Readers may remember Match—that is the charter chain that instructs teachers to be “the demanding teacher” who is the “total badass” in the room and that their “catlike PEBO will defeat any misbehavior it encounters”. The blog on Match can be found here: []