Tag Archives: college remediation

Same Thing All Over Again–But Events Happen

Many, many irritating things happened during the omicron phase, things that sent me into a mild depressive episode. One happy note, however, was that the union obsessive pretense that covid19 is dangerous meant we could have staff and department meetings on Zoom.

Our staff meetings occur before school, so we start the actual school day late. But the meeting start time is half an hour earlier than the normal school day beginning. So I have to get to school half an hour earlier on a day when school starts half an hour late. This induces a cognitive dissonance that eleven years at the same school has never entirely resolved, and every week, I’m at best five minutes late. Zoom meetings allows me to actually leave later in the day and listen to the meeting in my car. On time. Given that two years of school insanity has never once played in my favor, this feels like win.


Our department chair, Benny, was explaining….wait. Before I begin this story, I want to be clear that I’m not really criticizing anyone involved, including Benny. I should also mention, as I have before, that our school is blissfully indifferent to test scores. Admins really don’t care. This exercise I’m about to describe is about as far as we get to caring. Also relevant: since Common Core, juniors take a test that has multiple levels but from a practical standpoint is binary. Students are either “college ready” or they aren’t.

So Benny was asking for volunteers to run brief 30-minute math tutorials designed to help students review topics. We have an intervention time after lunch that can be used for this purpose. Nothing new; we’d done this for the two years pre-pandemic. Except.

“So we’ve identified the kids who failed algebra 1, geometry, and algebra 2 and give them the opportunity to come to tutoring.”

Wait, what? Kids who failed what?

In years past, we had all agreed that kids who failed algebra I and geometry had not a single chance in hell of testing as college ready.  I had argued, unsuccessfully, that we should still tutor those kids and bump their failing grade if they got….better. To use SAT terms: “college ready” is around 600 Math (top 30%). Any junior who was still working on algebra 1 or geometry would be rocking that test at 450.

I know kids in our school who made it to precalc and got a 500 on the SAT math section and did not pass the college readiness standard.

So Benny was suggesting that kids who’d had multiple shots at algebra 1 and geometry would somehow be able to pick up all they’d failed to understand the first time as well as all the topics they needed in algebra 2 in ten 30 minute sessions.

He’s also suggesting we give this tutoring to the kids who failed algebra 2. But in a good year, pre-pandemic, 60-70% of the kids taking and succeeding at algebra 2 don’t test as college-ready. Kids who failed algebra 2 were not good candidates for passing the college readiness marker. And tell them that if they succeed at an impossible task, we’ll change their grade but only if. Not just for trying.

I said nothing. All hail Zoom.

“If they go to all the tutoring sessions and make college-ready on the test, we’ll change their F to Pass.”

“What about the students that are marginal but passed algebra 2, trig, or pre-calc? We should give them the same tutoring. And kids who flunked pre-calc or calculus, they’d be eager for that deal.” suggested Pete.

In a good year, pre-pandemic, these were the kids we tutored. We spent time identifying the students who had it together enough to pass three or four years of math with a C+, a B, or even a shaky A, and gave them support. That’s what you always do, if you’re looking to get maximize kids across a finish line. These were the kids who had a shot at passing the test.

“No,” responded Benny. “The test only goes through algebra 2 material. Kids who’ve passed algebra 2 should be able to pass this test without tutoring or an incentive.” 

I said nothing. I didn’t volunteer, either. All hail Zoom.


In the early days of my blog I would have immediately documented this craziness to provide some insight into how things work. Benny is, like all my colleagues, a progressive Democrat. But in math teacher typology, I’m the woke-conversant social justice warrior. Benny’s the traditionalist (check out our pass rates in this algebra 2 article). I know for a fact Benny doesn’t think his target group is up to the task he’s set. I know this because four years ago, we all agreed that the tutoring pool should be comprised of strong, motivated juniors taking algebra 2 or trig, along with any pre-calc students with Cs. This was the group whose pass rate we might be able to move from 0-10% to 30-50%.

Even more notably, in years past, I would have spoken up to make this very observation. I wouldn’t have been alone, either. Yet no one spoke up.

I’m not sure which is more worthy of comment: I’ve stopped bothering to write about the crazy unreasonable plans that show up in my teacher life, or I’ve stopped pushing back on crazy unreasonable plans that show up in my teacher life.

The first is easier to explain: events, dear boy, events. Both progressives and education reformers upped the nuttiness. The SAT changed to be a much harder test, then became irrelevant. Common Core spent billions on nothing. Two of education reform’s three legs got chopped off.  There was a pandemic and most of the craziness in that era I couldn’t bitch about because it was more central to my location than I usually allow online. Moreover, I try to say it once or maybe twice and then move on, linking to the original article to say “still this.”

The second question is more interesting because it’s not the usual answer. I’m not burnt out. I’ve not given up. I still care. I gritted my teeth and actually picked up my phone to put an observation in the chat yes, while driving, but Benny had set “Chat to Host Only” and so I didn’t end up driving into a ditch while typing a carefully worded but cynical comment.

If I have one Big Idea on high school math instruction*, it’s this: teach less and learn more. Find your comfort limit and develop your skills. Move on if you’re interested.

Kids who struggle with math could productively learn to apply arithmetic, geometry, and a little bit of algebra. The next group, the bulk of high school students, could do a huge amount of math with all that plus second year algebra, basic trig, and some stats. Top tier really should stop at analytic geometry, functions, and more trig. We could teach so much math that calculus could wait until college.

We will never be able to do this, because everything in education is about race. Astonishing, really, why more people can’t grasp that basic reality. Pick any education proposal you like, apply race, and you’ll realize it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

But individual schools like mine can still focus on helping kids at every point of the spectrum, even if we have to work through the state mandated structures for class sequencing. In terms of test prep, state tests might only focus on how many students were “college ready”, but we could focus on our average score. Maximize everyone’s score and celebrate that our lowest achievers worked hard to get every question right. This is, in fact, what we did the year before the pandemic. Absent that, we could focus solely on the students who are near the line and increase their pass rates, as I mentioned above.

My first five years at this school, I spent hours advocating for my vision. Chuck, the math coach, and I did our best to find a math path in our existing curriculum to route weaker students through. We differed on end goals–Chuck felt students should fall out by failing, I thought any plan that had students getting Fs by design was absurd–but we both shared the goal of homogenizing our classes so we could teach more content to those who were able and willing. In 2019, we took the top half of algebra 2 juniors, along with the non-honors precalc students and gave them prep sessions. This *dramatically* increased our college ready numbers to nearly half, when in prior years, before and after Common Core, we were happy with low 30%.

In early 2020 we had just started our tutoring groups for the state tests. Juniors still in A1, geo, and bottom half of A2 got skill review on the basics, to raise their confidence and willingness to try on the test. We also prepped the A2/Precalc students as described above.

Then the pandemic shut everything down. No tests in 2020, no prep in 2021 because of a different schedule. We get back in 2022, and the policy is now back to “let’s only give tutoring to kids who have no prayer of passing the test and promise them something they really need but only if they pass the test.”

And only as I wrote this did I realize that Chuck retired at the end of 2019.

Chuck, who endlessly advocated and presented at the district and administrative level. Chuck, whose emails reminding me to be sure to fail more kids annoyed me, but who was at least on the same page. Chuck, who was far more successful than I understood until he left.

Personnel matters.

That’s not the reason I originally began writing this, but once again, writing things down helps me find insight. Need to keep that in mind.

A couple other points.

When I mention events in the title, I wasn’t thinking of Chuck’s retirement but two other major ground shifts. For four years or more, major state university systems and their community colleges have completely abandoned remediation (See “Corrupted College” for details). In all the coverage, left and right, approving and disapproving, of the wholesale abandonment of SAT/ACT requirements in college admissions, no one mentions an obvious fact: grades are worthless. If grades are worthless, then schools up and down the selectivity food chain are going to acquire thousands of students whose transcripts say 4.0 but whose abilities are at the ninth grade or lower level. It seems to me that this will necessarily lower standards dramatically for college diplomas.

While improving math achievement for all students is a worthwhile goal and one I sign on to, my original advocacy for tutoring on state standardized tests was sourced in my desire to help students avoid expensive college remediation and for those of those who needed it, give them a better leg up to pass those remediation classes.

That’s pretty clearly  no longer going to be an issue. Thus, while I still think this approach is crazy and cruel, my concerns about their future in a degraded college system is less acute.

The second shift comes in answer to a question some might be wondering about: Why not Ed for Chuck?  Why don’t I volunteer for Chuck’s work?

My first response is hahahahahaha. Chuck’s job not only needed diplomacy and adminspeak, but also organization and focus. I’m 0 for 4. Moreover, Chuck had spent years teaching at an elite local (public) high school and had transferred here specifically to take on this task. He cared about teaching, but wanted to run a program, and taught less as a result. I care about teaching, and don’t like teaching less.

But the second response came a bit more slowly. Over the past five years, I’ve also undergone a shift in teaching topics, one that utterly gobsmacked me. If you’d asked me a decade ago how I would branch out, I’d have said my druthers were to still teach math, but up my quota of history and English. Ideally, say, in an AP Lang/Lit/US History class designed for bright kids who can read well but hate homework. I also predicted I’d be doing more mentoring.

None of that came true. Instead, I’m teaching with no prep (yay! more money, more variety, less boredom!) and running a program that I don’t talk about because it’s too specific**. But I am making a difference at the individual student level (from remedial to excellent) and the school-wide level with tons of money (which I need***) and  visibility (which I don’t).

Now, we can all agree that I’m an ornery cuss who seeks out the hard way every time. But surely, if I’m not looking for something that falls into my lap, I should take it and run with it rather than beat my head against a wall on an issue that is contrary to stated policy, requires endless handling and maintenance, and gives me no visibility except as a troublemaker?

Don’t worry, though. After I began this piece our district ended staff and department zoom meetings. Back to in-person, where I will inevitably mouth off.

*Actually, all subject instruction.
**Please don’t speculate, particularly to others. Remember how I wear anonymity.
***Not me personally. For the program.

The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.


–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.


Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.




So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.


Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.


Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.


Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation

So if any presidential candidate is out there looking for ideas–particularly you Republicans–here’s my first proposal:

Colleges and universities have been constantly complaining for 30 years or so that incoming students are in dire need of remediation1. These complaints inevitably lead into a conversation about failing high schools, accompanied by fulminations and fuming.

The correct response: Why are remedial students allowed to matriculate in the first place?

It’s not as if the knowledge deficit comes as a surprise. Most students have taken the SAT or the ACT, which most if not all four-year public institutions use as a first-level remediation indicator–that is, a score of X exempts the student from a placement test. Those who don’t make that cut have to take a placement test. Community colleges usually cut straight to the placement test. The most common placement tests are also developed by the Big Two ((Accuplacer is SAT, Compass is ACT).

So why not just reject all applicants who aren’t college-ready?

Private institutions can do as they like, but our public universities ought to be held responsible for upholding a standard.

Most states (or all?) offer two levels of post-secondary education: college and adult education. As colleges have sought to increase access to everyone who can demonstrate basic literacy (and far too many who can’t even manage that), adult education has withered and nearly died.

Pick a level and split them. My cutoff would be second year algebra and a lexile score of 1000 (that’s about tenth grade, yes?) for college, but we could argue about it. Everyone who can’t manage that standard after twelve years of K-12 school can go to trade school or to adult education, which is not eligible for student loans, but we could probably give some tax credits or something for self-improvement.

Adult education could be strengthened by repurposing the funds we now spend on remedial education. The existing community college system could, for example, be split into two tiers—one for actual college level work or legitimate AA degrees, the other for adult education courses, which are currently a weak sister of K-12.

The federal government could enforce this by refusing to back Pell grants for remedial courses in college, as Michael Petrilli and others have called for. State legislatures could arguably just pick a demonstrated ability level and restrict funding to those public universities that ignore it.

Of course, some argue that college is for everyone, regardless of their abilities. This path leads to a complete devaluation of the college degree, of course, but if that is to be the argument, there’s an easy solution. If no one is too incapable for college, then no education is remedial. So give the students credit for remedial courses, let barely functional students get college degrees after 120 credits of middle school work. No?

Proposal #2: Put Remedial Classes Back in High School


1College remediation in its present form came about during the seventies, when colleges expanded access largely to give opportunities to blacks and other minorities. At the time, remedial education was dubbed “compensatory”. Believing that socio-economic circumstances and poor schools led to a correctable deficit….well, see, I can stop right there. If you want the whole history, check out CUNY’s version of it; similar responses took place in campuses all over the country. But I don’t have to explain why that was a flawed belief. Just see the primer items 1-4.