Corrupted College

I try  to take the long view on education policy.  In the long run, education reformers, education advocates, and policy wonks are wasting their time trying to change the underlying reality.  They’re paying their own bills and wasting taxpayer dollars. Nothing else.

But every so often, I worry.

Check out this Edsource story on the  California State University system’s announcement of its intent to abandon the “strategy” of remedial courses.

At last! I thought. CSU was finally telling low-skilled applicants to attend adult education or community college. Hahahaha.  Five years of education policy writing just isn’t enough time to become properly cynical.

CSU is not ending its practice of accepting students who aren’t capable of college work. CSU has ended its practice of remediating students who aren’t capable of college work. It makes such students feel “unwelcome.” Students who aren’t capable of doing college work are getting the impression that they don’t really belong at college.

And so, CSU is going to give students who can’t do college work college credit for the classes they take trying to become ready for college.

Understand that the CSU system has been accepting these students for over 30 years. CSU used to offer unlimited remediation until 1996. After taxpayers protested, CSU passed regulations reducing remediation efforts to one year and vowed to ultimately eliminate all remediation by 2001. But alas, when 2001 came along,  ending remediation would dramatically reduce black and Hispanic enrollment, so the deadline was extended to 2007. (Cite ) But 2007 came along and things were even worse. After that, well, California ended its high school exit examination  and retroactively awarded diplomas to all the students who hadn’t been able to pass it. Why bother? CSU was accepting students who didn’t have the diploma anyway.

So, CSU decided on a new “strategy”, defining “college readiness” as “student is earning us tuition dollars”. They’re even looking at ending any sort of reliance on California’s version of the Smarter Balanced test, the Early Assessment rating that California has used for years to guide high schools towards getting their students ready for college.

Loren J. Blanchard, CSU executive said  that remedial education represents a deficit model that must be reformed if we really hope to achieve our equity and completion goals.” James T. Minor, a “senior CSU strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence” says that purely remedial or developmental classes “is not a particularly  good model for retention and degree completion.” Jeff Gold “emphasizes” that all the new program does is offer “extra help and services”, that rest assured, academic quality shall continue undisturbed. The CSU just wants to make sure that students who can only do middle school work “belong here” at CSU. CSU trustee chairwoman Rebecca Eisen is “thrilled” to hear about this change, as more students will “feel this is something they can do” and stay in college for longer.

Reporter Larry Gordon accepts all this at face value. He doesn’t push Blanchard to explain why students who can’t do college level work aren’t, by definition, a deficit model. Or why students who couldn’t pass an 8th grade math test should be retained long enough to complete a degree.

Nor does Gordon  observe that CSU has been offering extra help and services for thirty years.  In the current model, the help and services were not counted towards graduation. In the new model, they will be. That’s the change. Giving college credit for colleges that an advanced eighth-grader could complete is a reduction in academic rigor.

And note that Rebecca Eisen, at least, knows that Jeff Gold is lying. The remedial students were leaving because they couldn’t do the work. The change will make the students stay. Because the classes will be made easier and the students will get credit for them in this reduced academic environment.

Edsource checks in at Cal State Dominguez Hills, which has already been converting its remedial courses to “co-requisite” courses in statistics and algebra and that remedial students taking the co-requisite courses are passing at roughly the same rate as those who aren’t remedial.

Left unmentioned is that Cal State Dominguez Hills’ converted SAT averages has a 75th percentile SAT score of 450.  Everyone at CSUDH is remedial by a “typical” college’s standards–and by CSUDH’s standards, eighty percent were remedial in both math and English, which gives a small hint as to why the college might want to end remediation.

While Gordon reports the news without any context on the student ability level, he hastens to assure readers that ignoring remedial status is a public university trend. “Several other states, such as Tennessee, reported success in putting students in so-called corequisite courses starting in 2015. The City University of New York is taking similar steps by 2018 and also is starting to allow math requirements to be fulfilled by statistics or quantitative reasoning classes, not just by algebra.”

Meanwhile, this  decision “dovetails” (read: is driven by)  the CSU Graduation Initiative, which is a plan to increase the four-year completion rate from 19 to 40 percent.

So in 1996, California wanted to completely end remediation by 2001. Now, in 2017, California wants to give students college credit for remedial courses so that in eight more years two out of every five students will graduate in four years.

I once wrote an essay calling for a ban on college remediation.  But events are just getting way ahead of me. Anticipating that colleges would start giving degrees to people with middle school skills was something I foolishly rejected as implausible.

But as bad as this is, my dismay and disgust is deepened a thousand-fold by this fact: high schools aren’t allowed to teach remedial courses.

We can’t say hey, this kid can only read at the eighth grade level, so let’s give him more vocabulary and leveled reading. Heavens, no. In fact, you see education advocates arguing that giving kids reading above their ability level is going to improve their reading (something unestablished at the high school level). In practice, this means that all but the most severely deficient readers are expected to read and thrive on Shakespeare and Sophocles.

We can’t say hey, this kid can’t do pre-algebra, much less algebra, and at his current knowledge and interest levels, he can’t possibly succeed at the three or four years of math past algebra that high schools require for graduation. No, we have to  teach second year algebra concepts to kids who aren’t entirely sure what 6×8 is because we know they’ll graduate before they end up in pre-calc.  High schools with diverse student populations can’t offer courses for the entire range of abilities encountered. Schools with entirely low-ability students can just lie.

Thanks to the education reforms of both the right and left, high schools are under tremendous pressure to force all their students into advanced courses and not given any options for students who aren’t ready. There is no “ready” but college-ready.

It’s gotten so idiotic that many high schools have started “dual enrollment” programs for their at-risk students. The best students are taking demanding high school courses. But the at-risk kids are going to college to get the remediation their high schools aren’t allowed to give them.  They shade the truth, of course, mouthing nonsense about giving kids a taste of college. But read between the lines and you’ll see that the students are getting remedial courses. So high schools are paying tuition for low-level kids to take middle school courses at their local college.

But why? I’ve asked, time and again. Colleges are allowed to remediate. Why not let high schools provide the remediation, get kids closer to college ready? Any remediation we do will reduce the burden on colleges.

Ah, but that’s where the idiocy gets intense. The same public universities offering (or ending) remediation require that all students take advanced courses in high school.   CSU application requirements include algebra 2. If CSU remedial students were even approaching second year algebra ability, the university system wouldn’t be ending remediation.

But CSU, and all the other colleges with admissions requirements well above the ability of the bottom 30% of their student population, know this. So why?

I’ve thought and thought about this, and can only come to one conclusion. Colleges are desperate to give opportunities to black and Hispanic students in a public atmosphere with no tolerance for affirmative action. They’ve tried every way they can think of. Standards have already been lowered. Course demands have been almost entirely eliminated–top-tier public schools will issue bachelor degrees with no additional math courses (after the remedial course, that is).  This is just the next step.

The public discourse has become almost entirely bifurcated. At one end, we see education reformers hammering on high standards while suggesting, tentatively, that perhaps everyone isn’t really meant for college. We see learned professors opining that of the two proposed methods of improving low-income kids’ academic achievement, “no excuses” is better than integration because at least “no excuses” won’t hurt suburban schools.

Meanwhile, the actual colleges are lowering standards dramatically to the point that we will now routinely see people–primarily but not all black and Hispanic–with bachelors degrees despite reading at the eighth grade level and minimal math abilities. What makes anyone think that actual achievement is going to matter?

I haven’t seen any education reformers discuss the constant push to end or limit remediation, which has been going on for five years or so. They aren’t terribly interested in college policies. Education reformers want to kill teacher unions and/or grab public funds for essentially private charter schools, and this doesn’t help.

So now our public universities will accept anyone with a transcript spelling out the right courses. They’ll just put them in middle school courses and call it college. Education reformers, college professionals, all the middlebrow pundits opining on our failed education system won’t care–they send their kids to more expensive schools, the ones whose diplomas won’t be devalued by this fraud.

I’d put this insanity into the bucket of “Why Trump Won”, but does Betsy DeVos even care? She’s too interested in using federal dollars to push choice to win disapproval  denying federal dollars to colleges who want to “improve access”. She’s the worst of both worlds: a committed voucher advocate who wouldn’t be bothered by the destruction of public universities. But then, a  Democrat EdSec wouldn’t give a damn–in fact, a Clinton or Obama presidency would probably pressure colleges to lower standards even more. No one seems to actively try to change these policies.

But public colleges like CSU and CUNY are what bright kids from less well-connected families, kids whose parents don’t have the social capital to get into the “right” schools, were once able to use to get ahead. These schools have already done themselves a lot of damage, making it harder and harder for anyone, no matter how qualified, to get through in less than six years because of the time, resources, and expense involved educating the near-illiterate–and, of course, paying for  vice-chancellors of gender sensitivity and diversity awareness by accepting loads of Chinese students who prepared for college by committing fraud on the SAT.

If this doesn’t stop, America will have a much more serious problem than failed college students with huge college debts and no diploma. We’ll have thousands of college grads who got their diplomas with no better than eighth grade reading and math skills.

I’m not a high-standards maven.  Nor am I patient with the pseudo-cynical idiots who think they’re in the know, smirking that college degrees have been worthless for years.

No, they haven’t. But they’re going to be.

Meanwhile, people should maybe read more David Labaree.












About educationrealist

34 responses to “Corrupted College

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  • Roger Sweeny


    A good wow for the article. A bad wow for the reality.

    I wonder what the reaction would be to a presidential candidate who said, “No federal aid to colleges that admit students who can’t read, write, and figure on a tenth grade level.” Since students spend Pell Grants and subsidized student loans at colleges, they would be considered federal aid to those colleges.

    I feel pretty sure that most respectable opinion would hate it but I wonder what ordinary people would think.

    And since some of the respectable opposition would be “what is a tenth grade level anyway?,” it might produce some useful discussion about what a high school graduate should know and be able to do.

  • Purple Tortoise

    Not only is CSU expected to graduate more students who are less prepared in a shorter period of time, they need to do it with less funding from the state. Because as every politician and pundit knows, if you combine hard working but poorly paid instructors with highly compensated administrators rolling out new initiatives every few years and add the latest high tech wizardry, then you can spin gold out of straw.

  • Geoff Smith

    Helpful thoughts on a topic that is sadly, easy to observe.

  • Purple Tortoise

    In reality, I expect CSU to deal with this by teaching to the test. Since it was not clear what I meant by this in a previous comment, let me explain now.

    College instructors only meet with students in class about 2,5 hours per week or 25 hours per quarter or 75 hours per academic year. That is not enough time to cover the topic of any course with sufficient breadth and depth, so students are expected to spend 2-3 times as much additional time studying, reading, and working on homework outside of class. Passively listening to lectures in class is not a good way to learn, so ideally students would read and study and gain a basic understanding of new material prior to class, actively apply the material inside of class under the instructor’s guidance, and then solidify understanding outside of class doing a homework assignment. The reality is that many students have insufficient prior background to get started learning on their own ahead of class, and moreover passive lecturing is the only option anyway with a couple hundred students in a each class and only one teaching assistant per seventy students. So a large number of students fail to learn the material at the level they should in order to be prepared for the next class or have genuine college-level mastery. One option is to give students the grade they deserve, and another option is curve heavily and give students a higher grade than they deserve.

    A third option is to teach to the test. This is accomplished by thoroughly going over a limited set of material using a limited set of approaches in class, giving homework on the same material and using the same approaches, providing students with prior exams on the same material using the same approaches, and then testing students on the same material using the same approaches. All the students essentially memorize facts and rote procedures and score highly on the exam, and the instructor appears to be super effective. Except that the students didn’t really master the material and are unprepared for the next class.

  • Disillusioned

    I taught courses a remedial program at a “lower tier college.” They are ending the program this year for the reasons you stated. These, often illiterate and innumerate, students will be ousted in to college and told they can be anything they want.

    Now, some are fluent in Spanish but not proficient in English. They might actually benefit from going to school in Mexico. But they will pushed into a program they barely understand.

    Everyone of my students qualified for Pell grants and took out the maximum about if federal loans they could. Some of them failed the remedial courses and never went on to regular college classes.

    The only people who benefit are the administrators and I suppose us instructors. I’m glad to be done with that as I started out believing it was a good opportunity for borderline students but realized it is a combination of a scam and a fuzzy feel good project.

    • educationrealist

      It’s incredibly depressing, isn’t it?

      • Disillusioned

        The stories I could tell… One semester a drug treatment counselor got wind of our program and sent 10 of their recovering addicts to my class. Three of them were 65+ with serious health issues. What is a person like that expected to reasonably do? Only one of the ten went on to earn a degree (associates.)

        Another semester a student was convicted for attempted murder of a classmate. I supposed that doesn’t preclude someone from being eledgibile for earning a degree but it was certainly a distraction for the other students.

  • Disillusioned

    Please excuse my typos. I’m on my phone and didn’t notice what auto correct fixed.

  • Candide III

    > California … retroactively awarded diplomas to all the students who hadn’t been able to pass it
    Good heavens. At this rate, how far away is declaring all children college graduates on the day they enroll in primary school, as in Lao She’s 1933 satire “Cat Country”? One good thing to say about such a scheme: it would make college graduates look like America.

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  • Tort

    Meanwhile, an ASU professor cancelled final exams for her students in lieu of a Trump protest.

  • DensityDuck

    What’s happening here is that people are starting to catch on that “requires a bachelor’s degree” is the new “not black”.

    “Not black” has been an illegal hiring practice for the last fifty years (and with good reason), but the kind of characteristics that will make someone not be a good employee are often strongly correlated with being black. And you can claim that you’re just hiring the candidates you feel are most likely to be the best employees possible, but as soon as someone thinks they see “not black” in your hiring patterns your ass is grass and Title VII is the lawnmower.

    So you say “requires a bachelor’s degree”, because the presence or absence of a bachelor’s degree is a totally objective criterion. That black people are less likely to have bachelor’s degrees isn’t your fault, and if a black person with a bachelor’s degree walks in the door then they’re hired, but if someone looks at your hiring patterns and says “hey, you’re not hiring black people”, you can reply “well they haven’t got college degrees and the position requires one, other than that I’d hire ’em”.

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  • 21stcenturyblogress


    Your writings on the topic of education reform have always struck me as being right on target. This article was no exception. However, your solutions are rarely coherently stated or summarized in a meaningful context. On the other hand, I lack the ability to write either as eloquently or authoritatively as yourself on these topics, so I have very little room to speak on the matter.

    Over the past two years, I have begun my career as an educator, and I’m already burnt out. Unless, I am able to land a position in a rural district, I believe I am finished. My training was focused towards becoming a social studies teacher, but economic necessity funneled me in to special education at an inner-city school that in my imagination, would be one of the most exemplary examples of a potemkin school if there ever was one.

    As far as solutions to our crisis in public schools, I have some ideas, but they are neither rational nor achievable. Some, but nowhere near all, of these solutions would be:

    1) Eliminate ideology from the classroom. No longer should political radicals be allowed to preach to a captive audience. Our nation has been brainwashed through progressive propaganda. This process began long ago, and students are subjected to this from the earliest grades. (Impossible​, communist teachers dominate the industry)

    2) Create web resources for all citizens to access, not just teachers and students. Include in this, replacements for text books, lesson plans, study resources, and assessments, etc. These resources could be updated regularly, but should occur very infrequently, as if you eliminate ideology, how often would one need to update the curriculum to reflect current progressive dogma. This in the long run cuts costs, as you eliminate dinosaur text book publishing houses from the teet of the public taxpayers. Also, it would eliminate much of the tedious lesson and curriculum planning aspects of the teaching profession. Alongside this, testing could be conducted, in centralized locations, in which all citizens could receive credit for their educational attainment. (Impossible, the education-industrial complex would never allow this)

    3) Special Education services should be eliminated for 99% of all special education recipients. You know very well how much of a scam and a drain this facet of education is upon our school systems. Sure, provide opportunities for children with down syndrome, but run of the mill students with “emotional disorders” and “intellectual disabilities” should be purged. (Maybe possible, but these services would likely be replaced with another ineffectual Leviathan of a government program)

    4) Expulsions and suspensions must become commonplace. If a student does not value their opportunity to receive public education, they must be culled. They can still complete their education, but they will complete that education online, with the previously mentioned resources and testing facilities. Behavioral issues are easily the single greatest factor in creating ineffective learning environments. This can only be fixed by Stalinist tactics that eliminate all resistance from liberal do-gooders who believe that they are “advocates” for the students. (Impossible, once again, the education-industrial complex would never allow this)

    This by no means is a definitive list of solutions, but it’s a start. My main point being though, is I would like to see an article from you that would lay it all out. What do you believe would be, say the 10 most effective steps to take to fix public education.

    Truth be told, I am at a point where I believe there is no solution, and maybe all public education should simply be abolished. It’s highly likely that our society simply has no hope.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, you’re right that I’m long. I don’t know how to do it otherwise, though. The problem with most education debates is that they don’t address all the issues.

      I don’t know about the first one–I don’t see ideology as being all that harmful. All the curriculum i find online is open to everyone, so 2 is already here.

      Special ed is a waste of time and money, but then I don’t know why you’d teach it.

      I don’t think public education is broken. What’s broken is our expectations. I honestly don’t understand why you’re so discouraged, when it’s so obvious you’ve taken on a job you despise. Go find a teaching job you like. It’s not that dire.

      As for what I’d do, I wrote about it here:

      • CardinalMethod

        Thanks for the reply, you have some great ideas. Your tendency to endlessly spin yarns was exemplified in the post that you linked, but I eventually got what I was looking for.

        As for #2, sure, you can find curriculum guides online, but I was envisioning something along the lines of open-sourced, online text books, study aids, and assessments. There are paywalls in place for any such things, and this could be another place suitable for action by the federal government.

        And as for your conclusion, I took the job I was offered. It’s not always horrible, a few of my students are wonderful people. However, I had a student hit me this morning, so I was extremely unnerved. Even more so, as I knew that administration immediately started working to downplay and cover up the situation. Thus being, the impetus for perusing your blog during my planning period.

      • educationrealist

        Engage NY is entirely open source. I use a lot of Core Knowledge in my ELL class.

        I get it. I spent a lot of time taking jobs I was offered. But I would be very unnerved teaching special ed in an urban environment. Good luck. Sorry for my long stories!

      • educationrealist

        BTW, I thought my Loury/Cherry piece quite focused!!!

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  • Lab Guy

    Even if they have that piece of paper, what kind of job market are they entering? I’ve seen some really low hourly wages for those even with a bachelors in STEM like chemistry or biology.

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  • Apollo

    An article in CSM that deals with this issue:

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

  • surfer

    Sooner or later…you’ll go…juco!

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  • educationrealist

    […] gotten better at shepherding able students through college, but I do know that colleges are continuing to degrade their standards . I also don’t know whether we still have a small chunk of able students dropping […]

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  • Kyle Jonathan Chang

    Remedial education is a waste of time, money, energy, and resources in College!

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