Thursday, October 28, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Problem

NPR this morning reports that in Virginia, 25% of students enrolled in college must take remedial courses. The article is not yet available online, but here is an excerpt from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's recent address at the Innovate to Educate Symposium in Richmond.

"Many of those who are lucky enough to graduate from high school are not ready for success in college. In two- and four-year colleges here in Virginia, 25 percent of your students must take remedial classes. That's simply not good enough. We must raise the bar."

I suspect, fairly or not, that my own Big Southern U suffers from a similar problem. Nor do I think southern schools are unique in encountering these issues in their student body.

I don't know if Virginia's "Standards of Learning" (yup, we called 'em the S.O.L.s...hah!) are the solution to this problem, nor am I sure that "Race to the Top" is the solution. But no, Virginia, you are not imagining the problem.

Disclaimer: I am the child of a primary-school educator teaching in the second-poorest district in her state, and thus K-12 education is more on my radar than it might be otherwise.

A Parting Shot: * steps on soapbox * National Media & Blogosphere, can we please stop talking about whether or not Juan Williams has a psychiatrist? The discussion stigmatizes those of us WITH psychiatrists in a big way, and as the saying in the mental health community goes...a lot of people with psychiatrists are way saner than those without them. * steps off soapbox *


  1. Clearly the solution is more standardized testing!

  2. SOLs are NOT the solution. There is an epidemic in Va schools of teaching to the test (which I imagine is happening everywhere) and this DOES NOT help the students learn. I have several family members and friends that teach in Va schools who shock me with stories of how the SOLs stifle them in the classroom. What is the solution? I'm not sure, but SOLs are not doing the trick.

    I went through the Va education system, and I did well in college, but I believe I'm a special case. I was lucky enough to take Honors and AP classes, to have some of the best teachers in the state (IMHO) and self motivated enough to work hard. I think that Honors and AP classes are the only ones that truly prepare students for college (AP especially) but not all students can take these (logistically, and some simply aren't prepared for them either; perhaps this is the start of the problem?) I saw several of my fellow students struggle to do well in the regular classes; they could never have handled Honors or AP. And although my experience is with the Va system, i agree with BlackDog that this is most likely not just a Va problem.

    And as for Juan Williams...Can we all just butt out? Good grief, people, the man has a different opinion than you (or feeling or fear, I guess). That DOES NOT mean that you have to attack him personally. And obviously, saying he goes to a psychiatrist is meant to be an attack. I agree with BlackDog here again; people who go to psychiatrists are probably more sane than those who don't, because at least they are actively working through their problems and issues, instead of drinking, eating themselves stupid or using some other detrimental coping mechanism. Can we please just act like adults, and if we disagree with someone, leave it at that? (this seems fitting here, and in the political arena).

  3. Remedial training is not new, though; this extra "help" is just more publicized, public, and in greater quantity nowadays. When I was an undergrad MANY years ago, I took some summer school classes and saw some odd classes while I was waiting for my classroom to empty. I thought "WHAT is this basic stuff?" and asked and was told they were summer remedial classes for incoming students that needed to catch up.

    Flashing forward: another university that I've been a part of had students take remedial non-credit math or English classes if they didn't hit a certain score on certain tests. Folks I know who worked over there were amazed that these students were even admitted to a higher ed setting to begin with (from the stories I heard, the instructors could have filled a whole CM site with their daily tales). However... this particular university decided to drop those courses (which were certainly a revenue generator, taught by adjuncts) and are now "mainstreaming" these ill-prepared students. Geez.

  4. Very well said re: soapbox. He admitted he fears people based on their religion -- and by religion, of course, he was talking about race -- and there are plenty of racists in the world who aren't necessarily mentally ill.

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  6. Let's try this again, with better typing:

    It all depends on the definition of 'remedial'.

    Last year, a study was released, indicating that 85% of graduating 12th-grade students couldn't handle a college-level mathematics course.

    Most introductory college mathematics courses are at the level of high school Algebra II.

    What does this tell you?

  7. Paddington: it tells you that colleges are teaching HS material. However, while not a secret, it is shocking to some.

    What's even more disturbing is this: when my son was in the 8th grade (in a Virginia public school in an urban area), his math skills (and classes) were already at a higher level than some of the college students his mom taught (and, while smart, he wasn't a child prodigy).

  8. Teaching up here in Canada, I can't tell you how jealous I feel to constantly read about US institutions requiring remedial courses. For undergraduate degrees, Canadian universities accept students straight from high school, based on their marks in several core grade-12 courses, without any extra assessment (interviews, placement tests, etc).

    Once a student has been accepted, he/she plunges right into standard intro-level courses. At my university, which takes students with non-stellar high-school averages, this means that a significant percentage of my intro-course enrollment is actually functionally illiterate. They have to choose to (a) take advantage of the various academic-skills help centres on campus, on their own time, (b) flunk out of university, or, (c), cheat effectively.

  9. About half the students at our fifth rate private school need at least one of the two remedial math classes. If you are breathing and, most important, are willing to commit to borrowing $100,000 over four years, then we will admit your ass.

    At a department meeting, a silverback complained about the math department's entrance exam. One of his advisees had completed calculus in high school but flunked the departmental exam. The advisee was bitch moaning about having to complete both remedial math courses. Obviously, the exam is flaw, the silverback exclaimed.

    I looked at the silverback for a moment and said, you don't know if the student learned the material nor do you the quality of instruction. It could have been a calculus course in name only and the student barely paid attention.

    I do know the folks in the math department. They do not strike me as the kind that fuck around. I also know the students in our department. They do strike me as the kind that fuck around. Tell the advisee that he or she should have no problems with the remedial course or the required college calculus course. Further, tell the advisee that you expect straight As in all math courses since the student has already completed high school calculus.

    The silverback snorted for a moment before moving on to familiar tirades about the general decline of our fifth rate private school.

  10. texpat76 - this happens all the time. I honestly don't know what constitutes 'calculus' in some of our local schools. We have had many students with 1 or 2 years of 'calculus', who test into the equivalent of an Algebra I class.

    Dr D - it tells me that a) we are wasting a lot of money in higher education and b) we are only pretending to educate too many of our K-12 students.

  11. Amen, on both counts. I know a few Virginia teachers who retired earlier than they'd intended (which does not necessarily equal official "early retirement") because of the SOLs. And yes, hands down, I'd much rather work (or socialize, or teach, or otherwise interact) with officially-diagnosed, under-treatment "crazy people" than with undiagnosed, untreated, or even officially "non-crazy" people with no coping strategies other than denial, projection and/or substance abuse.

    I was a fairly young child when the Ellsberg case was in the news, and it definitely shaped my sense of whether it was okay to see a psychiatrist (which, for a short time during a family crisis, I did; this was in the days when psychiatrists still did talk/play therapy, an era to which the commentators also seem to be harking back). I hope the Williams case will not play a similar role in stigmatizing psychiatric care -- talk, medication, or both -- for the current generation.

  12. Since my state decided that you can pass the high school exit exam writing at the 7th grade level, we college professors have been seriously f---d. I hear the same is true in math.

    But way back in the 1970s, I was doing grammar-level grading for my college professor mother by the time I was in 6th grade. Most of them were barely literate. So I don't know if it's a decline, or just the way it's always been.

  13. Marcia: Good point, of course. When I was at Fairly Big Southern U many years ago, some of my friends could not have possibly handled Calculus I (which was the LOWEST LEVEL 'real' math course offered at that time, no Algebra II or whatever). So... to get folks to fulfill the math requirement, the University offered a math class called "The History of Math". No joke.


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