Solving the Remedial Education Puzzle

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

In this week’s news, we feature a new study by the DC-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which finds that over $1.4 billion is spent at US two-year institutions for developmental (remedial) education. The issue of remediation continues to become an increasing challenge for educational institutions in the US and Canada. Critics of remedial programming suggest that if high schools did their job better, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s a hard point to argue. Certainly, if our middle and high schools better prepared students for higher education, we would rely less on remedial programs later in the education process. However, education reform doesn’t happen overnight and, given our track record over the past 20 years, it hardly occurs at all.

So we’re stuck with this remedial problem for the foreseeable future. A few years ago, the State of New York decided that remedial programs didn’t belong in four-year institutions, so they pushed them down to the community college level. Other states followed New York’s lead. In some ways, this approach makes sense: community colleges are less expensive on a per capita/per course basis than universities. Beyond the fiscal horizon, we do not know if the quality of remedial education is as good as it was at the university level. To my knowledge, that research question has not been addressed (and if anyone contests, please bring it to my attention).

This remedial issue is a bigger problem than one might perceive. With No Child Left Behind and the increasing focus on accountability by the Bush Administration and policymakers across the country, it is significant that high school graduates are requiring extensive remediation at the postsecondary level. They are graduating with a diploma, but unprepared—at some level—for college-level work.

The Alliance report is correct in suggesting that this is a huge pink elephant in the education big-top, but let’s be clear: there is no silver bullet here. There is no simple policy to rectify the situation. If students are unprepared for postsecondary work but aspire to study at that level, remediation is their only avenue. Forcing down remediation to the community college level, as in New York, was meant as an effort to do so, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that this policy, except on a fiscal level, has been successful.

At one level I would support a federal program that rewards schools and institutions for reducing remedial/developmental needs for underrepresented groups at the postsecondary level. The challenge, of course, is that our vision of “K-16” education is mostly a cliché; accountability from secondary to postsecondary education is pathetic. No one owns “the problem,” and the system isn’t built to share the responsibility or blame. Ultimately, we need to continue the conversations about K-16 or K-20 partnerships, but we need to up the ante. At some level, governments need to make it known that this is serious stuff. K-12 won’t like that, nor will higher education. But it may be the only carrot/cattle prod to which those two entities will respond.

Like every other conversation, I could easily segue into the need for a national unit-record database, so we could truly see where these issues hit home. But that will have to wait for another week.

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