Remediation ruminations

Posted on February 8, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Maybe you saw the jubilant news in the paper earlier this week.

Remediation rates for first-time students entering public colleges in Arkansas plummeted by 1.7 percentage points between 2014 and 2015, from 41.4 percent to 39.7.

There is some merit to the notion that any progress is always welcome, even if it reflects a statistical blip rather than real movement. But the four-out-of-10 overall remediation issue for Arkansans (which becomes six-out-of-10 for two-year public colleges with looser enrollment policies) warrants more than just tracking data and reporting the rate.

Remediation should be widely recognized as waste.

All states invest heavily in a high school graduate’s education, which presumably includes training to read and do math. So when large numbers of high school graduates can’t pass muster on the ACT test in reading and mathematics, it’s not just a problem for the colleges seeking to enroll them. The bigger problem is what went awry with the large sums spent on their K-12 learning.

Over 13 years of public education, Arkansas will spend roughly $122,000 on each student (Census Bureau data show an average annual per pupil expenditure in Arkansas of $9,394). That’s a lot of money, time, effort and other resources to turn out a graduating field of students every year where the majority hasn’t mastered reading and math.

And, as you might have suspected, Arkansas high school graduates struggle more than almost every other state.

Thankfully, we’re not the worst state at producing college-ready students. But we are far too close to the bottom for comfort—or for progress in an information-age economy.

Average per-pupil spending is just that: It’s the quotient achieved by dividing the number of students in a large public education system by the sum of all combined expenditures. That means it has little relevance in terms of tying specific student spending to individual under- or over-performance. Yet individually is precisely how students learn.

Teachers understand this. Education bureaucrats and analysts often forget it.

When 40 percent overall of first-time students at Arkansas public colleges and universities need remediation, that’s simultaneously a system failure and also a huge number of classroom failures.

Teachers can tell us what’s not working in classrooms, but they’re not being asked in any formal or strategic way. Yet purely systemic reforms exclusive of refocused teacher-student dynamics will never produce solutions.

Let’s translate the situation to something familiar. Who would continue to patronize a restaurant where four out of 10 meals were unpalatable? Or buy groceries at a store where four out of 10 items were spoiled?

We’ve grown numb to a situation in which four out of 10 high school graduates are unable to read, write and do arithmetic at basic college entry levels.

And that’s just those trying to go to college. We have no idea of the reading and math proficiencies of high school graduates who don’t enroll in higher education courses, but it’s hard to imagine it would improve the average.

And while most other states have lower remediation rates, we must beware the fallacious instinct to merely try and emulate them. It’s silly to copy another state’s policies and practices if that state is too dissimilar—socioeconomically, demographically, geographically—from Arkansas.

We’re still a primarily rural state, with high child poverty rates. Bedrock research has indicated smaller schools serve such populations more effectively, but we’ve spent the better part of the last decade shutting them down. Like others, we’ve thrown money at education in response to red herring alarmists. But unlike wealthier states, we can ill afford such waste and our students have suffered profoundly as a result.

There’s a fundamental grass-roots element to education that must be nurtured, not ignored. The true common core of learning isn’t testing standards—which only measure outcomes after the fact—but the age-old foundations that mightily affect input and effort: family and community.

The state never really provides an education. All it can provide is the opportunity and the tools for the people to educate themselves. It’s the old “lead a horse to water” concept; learning can no more be force-fed than it can be injected like a vaccine.

Education is a joint effort, requiring essential responsibilities among parents. It’s a rare school that can overcome the challenges created by a community that collectively fails at parenting its children.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson from two centuries ago this very year, if a society expects to educate children, independent of parental involvement, it expects what never was and never will be.

Remediation is a red flag, all right. But repairing the problem with college refresher courses is expensive and ineffective. K-12 reform is required, and it must do two things: empower teachers and address parents’ responsibilities.

My apologies

Last week, I misspoke when I claimed that ride-sharing phenomenon Uber served only Fayetteville and Little Rock, as a reader/rider in Northwest Arkansas promptly reminded me.

She said there was “Ubering aplenty” going on in Rogers, Bentonville, Bella Vista and Springdale.

I’m glad to hear it, and glad to set the record straight.

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