I believe in the importance of remedial or developmental classes at the college level. I have witnessed the transformation of countless students who suddenly morphed into the student they needed to become in order to succeed in college and their future profession. I say sudden because in the arc of their education transforming within a 16-week semester is sudden even if it actually seems painfully slow when we are in the process. There are a number of reasons why I think we need to protect our college-level remedial programs, but perhaps one of the most important reasons is that students need second chances.
Humans are not robots. We don’t all learn at the same time and rate and by the same methods. I was always that kid who got the math concept partway through the next unit. Students struggle with literacy and math for a number of reasons. Some are inherent to them, some are the result of poor choices (whether made by them, their parents, or their teachers — or some combination), and some are simply the result of our current obsession with standardized tests. Developmental classes give students another chance – a chance to commit to their education in a way they might never have before, a chance to learn or master something they have struggled with in the past, and a chance to experience new pedagogical methods (such as Writing Studio).
These new pedagogical methods as well as alternate paths to college success are important factors in the new vision of developmental education. We need this new vision, this revision, of our remediation methods for three important reasons. First and foremost, we need to remediate remediation because our existing model is not working. A large percentage of students fail to successfully complete the traditional developmental classes we have offered for decades. Some fail because they are not ready for college (emotionally, financially, socially, and/or intellectually) but many fail because they are defeated by the delay and frustration caused by remedial classes (See Looking For More Loft). Even worse, these students then drop out of college and lose their chance to improve their lives and we all lose their potential contribution as professionals and citizens. Second, our placement methods are faulty and negligent at best and educational malpractice at worst. We treat our placement tests as finely tuned precision instruments even when we know they are nothing of the sort. We draw a hard line between two numbers and declare the students above the line “college ready” and the students below the line in need of remediation. As if a test score, or even a collection of test scores, tells us the full story of a student. Last, but not least, offering only remediation that essentially takes the same form as the previous instruction, which already failed to prepare the student, is folly. We need to utilize new pedagogical methods and offer alternate paths for students. We need to find ways to reach them, to teach them, and to provide the support they need when they need it and no more. Not all students need or will benefit from three or six hours of remedial coursework. Some students will benefit from other forms of support. Some students need to be given the control over when and where they seek this support and not have it forced upon them. Students are not widgets rolling along a conveyor belt. This is the worst thing about K-12 education and I hate to see higher ed make the same vicious mistake.
I believe in developmental education because I know many students arrive on campus not fully prepared for the academic challenges they will face, but I also believe that we need to change the way we remediate at the college level. We need to remediate remediation because many of us are facing state and federal mandates to do so, but truly we need to do it because it is the right thing to do as educators and as humans.