Reflections on Remediation in College and the Purpose of Education in a Democracy

In 1995, after spending four years visiting public schools throughout the United States, Mike Rose published the award-winning Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America.  The book presents stories of dedicated teachers and inspiring classrooms and raises broader questions about the purpose of public education in a democracy and the limitations of our current reform efforts in fully realizing that purpose.

Rose is currently involved in “Pathways to Postsecondary Success,” part of a five year set of mixed-method studies focused on maximizing opportunities for low-income youth to earn higher education credentials. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the studies examine college and career opportunities and obstacles for 16- to 26-year-olds in low-income California communities, develop indicators, and help shape the U.S. policy agenda on the relationship between poverty and education.

Beginning with the observation that remediation—the chance to revisit academic material—fits within a second-chance society and is necessary to maintain educational opportunity in an unequal educational system and in a society that wants increasing numbers of its citizens to go to college, this presentation examines the causes of academic under-preparation, the purpose of remediation, the problems with traditional remedial instruction, and the institutional and political dynamics of remediation. The speaker also encourages viewers to open the lens and consider the goals of education in a free society—goals that can’t be realized without an academic second chance.

Rose opens the presentation by relating his own experiences in the classroom of asking his students on the first day why they are in the course.  He suggests the question “Why are you here?” is an excellent starting point for greater understanding and embracing the value of education as a practical pathway to success outside of the educational setting.  Starting with the students’ rather than the instructor’s point of view is an excellent way to begin that conversation.

One area he focuses on is the question of how to get students who are reluctant to express their own ideas to engage in that activity.  He certainly endorses free writing following in-class discussions.  The movement from speech to writing fosters greater success in expressing ideas.  The selection of topics more familiar or personal for students might be useful in getting students more engaged in their own writing.  An additional tool he suggest for moving students past their reluctance is to have open discussions on the “roadblocks” students face in their writing.  Some of these barriers might include ideas students remember from previous educational experiences, what Rose calls “mislearning,” where students picked up ideas that were not what was being taught, and those faulty ideas become long-term barriers preventing students from succeeding in their writing.  Asking students about what they think stands in their way often reveals a list of flawed rules the students believe they are bound by that, in fact, are not actual rules of academic writing.  Dispelling those faulty beliefs and assumptions often leads to greater engagement.

He then moves into questions of connecting his research in cognitive science and psychology to teaching writing.  He says the work calls attention to not only those aforementioned flawed assumptions but also asks instructors to see errors in student writing as opportunities to have rich conversations with students about their content intentions more so than their mechanics.

He next addresses the current trend of accelerated remediation in higher education.  He sees acceleration as worthy of consideration first by noting the very low success rate of the more traditional sequence courses for remediation before entering the college-level composition course.  He suggests that objections to accelerated remediation on the basis of “too much, too fast” assumptions should be challenged because those assumptions are rarely based on real data.  He argues that even with the additional challenges that accelerated remediation presents to colleges, the programs are “worth a try” given the dismal success rates of sequential remediation courses.  He does warn, however, that the discussion of accelerated remediation should never “gloss over” the reality that some students have severe difficulties in writing.  Acceleration should not be for only the sake of speed; those programs still require depth and richness in order to succeed.  He also reminds listeners that the programs must be continually evaluated to measure their success.

The last topic he addresses are more practical questions of remediation instruction.  He first deals with a question of workload for instructors.  One suggestion he offers is that not all writing must be assessed.  Asking students to engage in small writing tasks, especially in class, can be effective without the need of collecting and grading that work every time.  Peer or group activities can also provide useful feedback to student writers.  He also suggests encouraging conferencing during office hours.  He also supports the more traditional approach of zeroing in on large, repeated errors or patterns in writing rather than specifically addressing every single minor issue; he calls this a more “global” approach.  He concludes the presentation by answering workshop participants’ questions.

Presenter Bio

Mike Rose is a Professor of Education in the Social Research Methodology division. After graduating with a BA in English from Loyola University, he became a teacher at El Monte Elementary School through the Teachers Corps Program, while also completing his MS in Education at USC.  In 1981 he completed a PhD in Education at UCLA, specializing in educational psychology and counseling. Over his forty years in education, Mike has taught in a range of settings, from kindergarten to job training and adult literacy programs.  He has written a number of books and articles on language, literacy, and cognition.