Beth Fine

Educational Fiction Author – Serious Thinker – Child at Heart

More College Remedial Classes

With all the money spent on education, how can we reconcile the sad statistics of results? Increased rates of students dropping out to grim job prospects and rumblings of new employees with diplomas unable to read manuals or write shift reports should wake us up to how far we are falling behind other nations. It seems that teaching-to-tests, encouraging social promotion, and skewing grades to boost self-esteem have backfired. We still have no solid fix on the school situation nor a viable solution for training future applicants for complex jobs. However, what we do know is not comforting nor chest-swelling: Nearly 50% of entering college freshmen need remedial classes in reading, writing, and/or arithmetic. In fact, the California community college system sports ranges up to 75%.

Something is dreadfully wrong. We have teachers with better training, higher salaries, well-researched methods, and prescribed curricula who still cannot reverse persistently sad results. These facts defeat teachers’ valiant efforts but, in my opinion, should indict public education for insisting to use more pedagogical experimentation on each new generation. None of this seems to work.

While teaching pre-college developmental English to adults who sadly tested at grade 3.5 ability, I saw discouraged faces caused by failure in previous school experiences. Many had no idea why they were there, except they had heard that the State had declared anyone could go to college. Remedial classes were set up to prepare students, but tracking results lagged behind resources. New bureaucracies geared up. Rumors regarding Pell Grants multiplied over the campus. But in reality, I had students who had no readiness for college: no study skills, critical thinking or task accountability. They attended spasmodically, failed lower and upper level remedial classes, but then, on job applications, counted those failed terms as years in college.

My students struggled to research a subject and to write coherent sentences on an idea for which they obviously held great passion. To honor their effort, I waded through ill-designed, poorly executed papers, trying to figure out the logic of paragraph points often expressed in shallow vocabulary, slang terms, and misspelled words (e.g. “I loves to party awl day and boogie tonight. I go to the mall to hang with my friends…The worst thing/the best thing I ever did was I got talked into abortion bacuz I love my baby).”

It seemed that I spent more time reading/deciphering these papers than the writers had obviously taken in creating them. Such inadequacies and nonacademic bent broke my heart yet sharpened my focus on how to direct remedial lessons. As hard as it sounds, I often put “not college work” atop my students’ essays. While that phrase shocked some into more serious effort, others totally missed the nudge.

In addition to awkward sentence structure and muddled grammar of pre-college students, I also found it difficult to parse the near-Ebonics lingo like “he be/we be” that peppered some African American students’ writing and speaking. I wanted to validate their vocabulary by teaching them a research-approach to explore the classic roots of the only language their ancestors probably heard after arriving to America.

We discussed old journals that revealed how slaves were often allowed only to talk in their huts, but not in the fields. This ploy essentially prevented any attempts of slaves to organize or rebel. Over subsequent decades, they continued to practice at home a strong use of the subjunctive tense, (he be / we be) even though American English began to move away from that style. To validate that vocabulary fact, I read some 16th century English phrases in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “I mean, as we be in choler, we’ll draw….. Go ask his name, if he be married.” (Act I, Scene 1.)

I encouraged my students to love and retain pride in the remnants of this language. However, I shared the need to reconcile that love with the truth of grooming themselves for the business world. With candor, I told these eager young people that such community lingo would not make them employable except at the most menial tasks. For me to say otherwise would do them a cruel disfavor.

Even so, an inevitable collision occurred when I juxtaposed students’ actual performance with the assumed, pedagogic principle that “writers are readers, and readers are writers.” The old question, Why Johnny Can’t Read, stared at me with a renewed reality. My students were not used to seeing or reading  lots of words on a page. Even so, they began to love working on the Learning Lab computers. Still at home, they reported preferring the counter-culture offerings on MTV instead of outside reading.

After more than a decade, earlier stated statistics reveal no improvement. Public schools annually change outlooks and use newly-touted methods to correct such deficiencies; but alas, the problem grows. Such results point more to wrong-minded philosophy than professional efforts and intentions. Perhaps the persistence of John Dewey’s progressive education model cannot handle our burgeoning diversity and has, so to speak, “done us in.”

No one can quite reconcile how the traditional, naive 19th century with only strong discipline measures and meager classroom resources (like the McGuffey Reader and KJV Bible) successfully produced literacy and math competency in early American colonists, pioneers, and immigrants. Even up into the 1940s, teachers, who often had only a 2-year normal school training certificate, still amazingly cranked out needed shopkeepers, industrialists, doctors, statesmen, scientists and journalists. Teachers were dedicated gardeners to their students’ fertile minds. They seemed to know and practice a basic principle: Once someone learns to read, write, and do numbers, he is intuitively drawn to read subjects of his own interest, to follow his own dreams, and to decide his own future.

Ben Yogoda’s  “Nonplussed” article referenced in my previous blog stimulated today’s entry but this academic exercise went in a different direction than expected. Even so, this topic reminds me why I designed “The Picaresque of Ímagine Purple” as an educational  fiction series to address some alluded to deficiencies. More on this series in my next blog.


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