Recasting Remedial Education

Contemporary discussions about remedial education are often cast in the rhetoric of crisis, high cost, and failure. Remedial education, the courses and programs that help students with the basic mathematics, writing, and reading skills necessary to be college ready,  is a long-standing component of many community college students’ lives. In fact, more than half of the students in America’s community colleges experience remedial education. Unfortunately, many of these students do not succeed. But is remedial education really a “Bridge to Nowhere” as one report recently declared?Back to School

UCLA education professor Mike Rose believes remedial education is a vital endeavor. In Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose highlights the second-chance opportunities of remedial education while acknowledging that there is much that could be done to improve it. Rose’s engaging narrative, his use of high-level data mixed and first-person accounts of students seeking second chances makes a convincing claim. For thousands upon thousands of students who find themselves needing to return to school, to finish a GED, to get their lives in order, remedial education and the mission of community colleges is indispensable. The stories of these students are moving and compelling.

Rose’s investigation raises important and difficult questions. How much responsibility do we, as educators, have to provide additional “chances” to students? In our efforts to focus on skills, do we drive students away from lifelong learning and values? Do the structures and processes of remediation create more barriers to student success? Rose is a careful listener and an astute observer. He appreciates the multiples ways that subtle forms of power can influence outcomes. Without pronouncements or harsh criticism, he is able to understand and give voice to student perspectives, in particular from the students who face extraordinary barriers.

Rose also appreciates how faculty, programs, and institutions function and the corresponding power of organizational momentum. Using a welding program as a leaping off point, Rose explores the value of occupational cognition and academia’s long-standing difficulty of incorporating vocational education effectively within a broader educational mission. Welding demands mathematical and quantitative literacy as well as physical skill; successful welding challenges the historic Cartesian distinction. Rose’s thoughtful analysis makes clear the unintended consequences of vocational-liberal arts divisions.

A stronger, more powerful work is hiding within Back To School, which is weak on documentation and references. The book does not have an index and many of Rose’s arguments could have been developed more forcefully. His recommendations for improvements, which range from the physical layout of campuses to more effective advising and teaching, to more integrated programming, are straightforward and make sense. In fact, many community colleges are actively pursuing these and many other efforts. Remedial education is not going away; too many students need it. We need thinkers like Rose to help ways to make remedial education more effective for more students.

David Potash



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