College Guide

Blog

August 20, 2009 12:33 PM Higher Ed’s Bermuda Triangle

Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.

By Camille Esch

Treating children that way is like giving a lion their food without making them hunt for it.

Jacinth Thomas-Val writes the sentence on the blackboard in her classroom at Sacramento City College, then asks her students what’s wrong with it. “What does ‘them’ refer to in this sentence?” she asks one young woman. The young woman doesn’t know, shakes her head, then gets up and leaves the classroom without explanation, not returning for the rest of the period.

More times than she can remember, Thomas-Val has explained that pronouns need to match the word or phrase to which they refer. But the students in English-Writing 40, the lowest-level writing class that her community college offers, make these same basic mistakes week after week. Thomas-Val presses on, erasing “a lion” and changing it to “lions.”One young woman in the front row—clearly the eager, outspoken type—starts to get it, and asks how to fix a similar sentence in the essay she’s just gotten back. But as Thomas-Val tries to explain, the back of the class dissolves into hushed talking and texting. Thomas-Val gently pulls them back to attention, but by the time she does, she needs to get the students started on their next essay assignment, a task that will consume the rest of the eighty-minute class. So she moves on.

Sacramento City is a typical California community college: its students are primarily minority, low income, and go to school part-time. Eighty-five percent of them arrive needing what are called remediation classes, courses like Thomas-Val’s English-Writing 40. Remediation classes are designed to bring students up to the level needed to get started on the college’s actual curriculum, to close the growing gap between what students have to know at the outset of college and what they learn in California’s crumbling high school system—or, for older students, basic skills they may have once had but have lost in their years out of school.

This willingness to offer opportunities and second chances to disadvantaged students, opportunities that aren’t available in many other countries, is what first appealed to Thomas-Val—herself an immigrant from Antigua—about American community colleges. But in her decades of teaching, she has been shocked at just how unprepared most of her students are, how little they know—and how hard it is to help them. “It’s unbelievable, just totally unbelievable,” she says. Of their writing, she says, “It’s filled with all kinds of sentence-level errors. Not knowing how to join sentences or where sentence boundaries are. Capitalization problems. Stuff like that that you learned in grade school, or should have.” Faced with these circumstances, Thomas-Val has adjusted her own expectations. “Let’s say I have fifty students this semester,” she says, “and five of them do exceedingly well. I am so grateful for the five. [For] the other forty-five, yes, my heart breaks, but I think, ‘Oh, I’ve got five!’ ”

Camille Esch directs the California Education Program at the New America foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. This project was done with the assistance of an associate fellowship with Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

Comments

  • Kendall Morris on September 04, 2009 9:20 PM:

    This is a really interesting article Camille. Nice work! I would love to talk with you about an initiative I'm working on with Social Media Club for higher level education. I think it may be of interest to you.

    Great to see all of your hard work in Mr. Ward's english classes paid off! He'd be happy to see what you are doing now.

  • Philip Daly on September 21, 2009 1:39 AM:

    p>Ms. Esch makes many interesting points in her article, but her conclusions, I'm afraid, are far off base. To suggest that the CA Community College System is somehow primarily a launching pad for four-year institutions is to have taken a very cursory look at the topic you are writing about...many students enter to complete a certificate program, complete a single class for employment skills, etc. and are never entering with the objective of earning an AA degree. To suggest that only 50% of students earning a degree is equal to 50% failure is a gross misrepresentation. A better statistic would have been the percentage of students who complete their initial educational objective while at the college; data which IS kept at Sacramento City College.

    Moreover, while citing the diminished job CA high schools are doing in preparing students for higher ed, Ms. Esch doesn't trace the stats to see why. She suggests that there is resistance to standardized testing at the post-secondary level but fails to acknowledge that the introduction of the "high-stakes" tests in CA's K-12 system has led to reduction in actual performance. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn's: THE CASE AGAINST STANDARDIZED TESTING (Heinemann 2000) From reading this article, one almost gets the impression that Esch has taken standardized testing as the educational panacea it so often gets portrayed as, without researching its actual effectiveness or the history of how it came into play on the National (read NCLB) stage (hint: it started in Texas!)

    Finally, I can say from experience that MANY of my former students went to CA Community Colleges directly from the same types of "low-income" backgrounds that Esch describes in the article. Several had the same types of linguistic and mathematical challenges upon arrival, and I cannot think of a single one who did not go on to achieve their educational objectives there. While I agree wholeheartedly with Esch's analysis of the funding discrepancies between CA's community college and 4-yr. institutions, in these times, the CC's are doing even more with even less. The may not be the Stanford of Esch's own academic pedigree, but these schools are hardly a "Bermuda Triangle!"

  • Joe on September 22, 2009 1:13 PM:

    I'll be honest. I'm 23. I'm a product of the California public school system who left California for college and grad school, and I have hundreds, if not literally thousands, of friends and acquaintances who've gone through California's community colleges, Cal States, and UCs.

    I have some bad news for you.

    The vast majority of California community college students?

    They're really. F#@!ing. Dumb.

    We're not talking 'disadvantaged minds yearning to learn if you show them the possibilities' here.

    We're talking dumb as rocks.

    Not only that, they are *aggressively* dumb.

    There is no sense of shame. No sense of missed possibilities and opportunities to be made up for. It's "This is boring, I'm not interested, when can I get the hell out of here and hit the bar with my friends?"

    Their parents, usually, aren't affluent. But life at home is workable. There usually isn't a struggle to put food on the table. There's zero sense that life is offering them a challenge they need to rise to.


    I had plenty of friends in high school who couldn't go to college because they lacked the grades and were poorly motivated, but then straightened themselves up for community college.

    What they found when they got there was a system that was mind-numbingly easy. Straight A's every semester, no questions asked. An easy-peasy pathway into one of the UCs when it came time to transfer.

    They were bowled over both by how easy it all was, and the fact that the mouth-breathers around them still seemed challenged by the content.

    The problem doesn't stop once you transfer to a UC, either.

    One of my friends transferred from community college to UCSB... and found the student body and the ease of the coursework was almost equally bad there.

    In a quiz for his Latin American history class, having forgotten the answer to one of the questions about 70s Brazilian Presidents, he scribbled in "Sean Connery" for fun and turned in the test.

    The next day, an e-mail from the teacher was waiting for him in his inbox; report to my office immediately. He expected he'd be chewed out for goofing off a bit with an exam question he couldn't answer. Instead, he was accused of plagiarism; the students sitting around him knew that he was one of the rare few who actually did the class readings, and had copied his 'Sean Connery' answer (along with all his others) without a second thought. This story is neither uncommon nor exceptional among my peers.


    Seriously, the problem here isn't a lack of funding for remedial ed.

    The problem is that as a society we've morphed into a combo of a declining Rome and the movie Idiocracy's dystopian future.

    The California community college system works absolutely fine for any student who actually gives a damn. The vast majority of them don't.

  • Micah on September 23, 2009 7:27 PM:

    I see nowhere in Ms. Esch's article that she presents standardized testing as a panacea. She also argues for measuring colleges based on students' performance toward their educational goals as does Mr. Daly.

    A less defensive reading of the article would probably have produced a more constructive response. Though the comment is valuable in that it displays the sort of defensive attitude that Ms. Esch reports on in the article. If Mr. Daly cannot think of a single student who did not achieve their educational objectives at a community college, then he clearly has no experience with community colleges and his comments should be disregarded entirely. Not a single student? Think harder.

  • David on September 29, 2009 8:22 PM:

    Thank you, Micah. I thought for a moment that Philip Daly was commenting on a different article. Yes, many community college students are not there to pursue a four year degree. The colleges also offer vocational and technical programs that provide (or at least have in the past) solid skills to move into jobs where a college degree is not necessary. This dual role of community colleges is great for students and can benefit the community.

    But there are also risks associated with this dual role. It makes it easy for someone like Philip Daly, along with a lot of CC administrators, to assert that everything is fine by assuming that the students who don't successfully go on to a four-year college weren't really attending with that intention anyway.

    There are risks for students, too. Although some community college students are eligible for university admission and choose the CC for convenience and cost reasons, many are not. These students were typically not on the college track in high school, or attended high school long ago. They might aspire to a college degree without fully understanding what is involved (think of media depictions of college students - how often are they portrayed as actually studying, as opposed to partying?). So there's a tendency for students to just kind of wander through some courses without a plan. And no, Joe, they aren't all aggressively dumb. They're more like I was when I got my first beater of a car and it broke down. Sure, I felt kind of dumb standing there with the hood open and holding a screwdriver, but it was more a case of good intentions, but no clue as to how to proceed. I suspect that a lot of students are in a similar situation with academics.

    It is notoriously hard to determine success if it isn't clear what goal you are trying to achieve. That's true of students, and it's also true of the colleges. It seems to me that putting some resources and effort into defining or clarifying goals would benefit both students and the colleges. There are solid vocational programs that don't require college-level writing skills, for example. Making an effort to interact with new students to help them set realistic goals helps them succeed, and could reduce the burden on remediation programs in the process.

  • robin on October 06, 2009 10:02 AM:

    If students are Coming In with 5th grade abilities, it is not the fault of the higher education system. They should not have gotten their high-school diploma in the first place. It is the job of K-12 to ensure that people are actually literate and understand the basic concepts of math, science, geography and history.
    The value of a high-school diploma has fallen because it no longer guarantees the person is able to read, so employers have looked at other credentials. In consequence, more people go to college in order to get credentials which 'prove' their literacy. Many of those people don't want to be at college nor should they be. Colleges, naturally, have responded by increasingly lowering their standards to combat their drop-out rate (and if a cynic to keep the money). But they will never be able to drop their standards low enough, nor should they.

  • Ray Radlein on October 08, 2009 4:40 PM:

    I have taught remedial classes in the community/technical college system in South Carolina where lesson one on day one was "how to add two (positive!) numbers together" — arguably as remedial a start as it is possible to get in a post-secondary education environment — and saw none of what is described in this article.

    My students were attentive and motivated, and from that standing start, most were able to perform basic algebra by the end of the course. Not all passed, of course, but there were far more As then Fs, more Bs than Ds, and none of the students dropped out during the class; and even the low-performing students exhibited more mastery of the subject at the end than they did at the beginning.