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Remedial Education and Civic Responsibility

By Alexander W. Astin

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that higher education plays a major part in shaping civic life in modern American society. Despite promising developments both inside and outside of academe, the American system of higher education still has a very long way to go before it can claim to be genuinely committed to the task of renewing and revitalizing civic engagement and democracy in the United States.

One commonly shared belief in higher education is that the "excellence" of our institutions is defined primarily by our resources and reputation. An obvious problem with this belief is that such a definition fails to address directly our basic societal purpose of teaching and public service. We focus more on enrolling top students than on educating them well. We focus more on enhancing our reputation in the eyes of the community than on serving that community.

As I consider all the ways in which these traditional beliefs interfere with our ability to improve and strengthen civic life in American Society, no problem strikes me as being more important than the education of the so-called underprepared or "remedial" student. By examining this issue in some depth, we can begin to see how it might be possible for higher education institutions to become more effective agents of positive social change.

Let me begin by asserting what may seem like a radical proposition: The education of the "remedial" student is the most important educational problem in America today, more important than educational funding, affirmative action, vouchers, merit pay, teacher education, financial aid, curriculum reform, and the rest.

Providing effective "remedial'' education would do more to alleviate our most serious social and economic problems than almost any other action we could take.

If we fail to develop more effective means for educating "remedial" students, we will find it difficult to make much headway in resolving some of our most pressing social and economic problems: unemployment, crime, welfare, health care, racial tensions, the maldistribution of wealth, and citizen disengagement from the political process.

The issues of race relations and affirmative action are intimately connected to the issue of underpreparation, since we have created a competitive, hierarchical higher education system which dispenses privilege on the basis of measures -- the GPA and standardized test scores -- that put our two largest racial minority groups at a competitive disadvantage.

Why do we shun remedial education?
The underprepared student is a kind of pariah in American higher education, and some of the reasons are obvious: Since most of us believe that the excellence of our departments and of our institutions depends on enrolling the very best-prepared students that we can, to admit underprepared students would pose a real threat to our excellence. Why would any sane institution have any interest in admitting such students?

But here we encounter a bit of a dilemma for those of us who work in the public institutions: Since the law in many states requires that at least some underprepared students be given the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education, how can this be done so as not to put our sense of excellence at risk?

The answer, of course, is that we have created hierarchical public systems of institutions where the least-well-prepared students are consigned either to community colleges or to relatively nonselective public colleges. And when we find ourselves forced to admit a few underprepared students -- for example, because of a commitment to affirmative action, in order to remain competitive in intercollegiate athletics, or simply to maintain enrollments -- we likewise avoid having much contact with them by hiring part-time instructors from the outside to do the work.

What is a "remedial" student?
"Remedial student" and "remedial education" are basically social constructions that have strong negative connotations. Just as in medicine one gives a "remedy" to cure an illness, so in education there must be something "wrong" with the student who needs to be "remedied."

There are at least three aspects of the "remedial" concept that are misleading. First is the use of categorical terminology to describe a phenomenon that is relativistic and arbitrary. Most remedial students turn out to be simply those who have the lowest scores on some sort of normative measurement -- standardized tests, school grades and the like. But where we draw the line is completely arbitrary.

Second, the "norms" that define a "low" score are highly variable from one setting to another. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the problem with the concept of the remedial student is that there is little, if any, evidence to support the argument that these students are somehow "incapable" of learning, that they have markedly different "learning styles" from other students, that they require some radically different type of pedagogy, or that they need to be segregated from other students in order to learn.

The individual and the institution
Just as individual citizens have responsibilities as well as rights, so do academic institutions. And just as excessive materialism and narcissism can interfere with the individual's ability to be a good citizen, so can an academic institution's preoccupation with acquisitiveness and self-aggrandizement interfere with its ability to be a "good citizen" in the community of institutions and in the larger society.

Just as our preoccupation with materialism, individualism and competitiveness makes it difficult for us to be responsible citizens who work cooperatively for the collective good of all citizens (especially the least advantaged ones), so does higher education's preoccupation at the institutional level with resource acquisition and reputational enhancement make it difficult to appreciate the critical importance of effectively educating all students, and especially those who are underprepared.
Since most of us have managed to isolate ourselves physically from our less advantaged fellow citizens, most of them have little or no contact with us. Similarly, in higher education we manage to avoid contact with most underprepared students through selective admissions, by tracking them into community colleges, by hiring outsiders to teach them, and by continuing to support grading and norm-based testing practices in the lower schools that almost guarantee that large proportions of them will be discouraged from even considering further education beyond high school.

Being "smart"
Why do underprepared students make us so uncomfortable? While our beliefs about the importance of resource acquisition and reputational enhancement are consciously acknowledged by most academics, there are other, closely related beliefs that are more "hidden," even though they can have profound effects on how we view the issue of remediation and underprepared students.

One such belief, which is virtually never acknowledged, much less examined critically within academe, is what I like to call "the importance of being smart."

Much of our fear of remedial students and much of our unwillingness to get involved in educating them can be traced to our uncritical acceptance of this belief and to the fact that most of us are not even consciously aware of the power and scope of its influence.

Most of us clearly favor our brightest students, not only in admissions and the award of financial aid, but also in the classroom. If bright students enroll at our institution and take our classes, this reflects well on our own brightness: Surely we must be smart if our students are so smart! But if our students are not so smart, then this reflects poorly on us.

The real problem here is that we value being smart much more than we value developing smartness. In our relentless and largely unconscious preoccupation with being smart, we forget that our institutions' primary mission is to develop students' intellectual capacities, not merely to select and certify those students whose intellectual talents are already well developed by the time they reach us.

This preoccupation with being smart is part of the reason why we continue to support a grading system and a standardized testing industry that are geared to ranking and rating students rather than to reflecting how much they are actually learning. We have inflicted this same "normative" system of testing on the lower schools, such that politicians and the public now assess the "quality" of schools simply on the basis of which ones have the "smartest" students, rather than in terms of which ones are the most effective educationally.

Institutional selectivity, of course, is intimately tied into our obsession with being, and being seen by others as, smart. In the culture of academia, simply being admitted to or employed by a selective institution is a mark of individual smartness. In much the same way that people living under a monarchy routinely judge each other's quality in terms of their bloodlines, so are educated people in the United States inclined to judge the quality of others on the basis of where they attended college.

This discussion highlights still another problem that stems from our preoccupation with institutional selectivity: Using a simplistic yardstick like an SAT or ACT score or the selectivity of one's institution as the principal indicator of a person's ability or smartness not only distorts and misrepresents the wonderful diversity of abilities and talents of our students and ourselves, but implicitly diminishes the great social and cultural importance of "citizenship" talents such as empathy, self-understanding, honesty, responsibility, and the ability to work collaboratively.

Defending selective admissions and tracking
Selective admissions is, in certain respects, the process by which we admit only those students who already know what we're supposed to teach them.

Selective admissions is frequently defended on the grounds that the tests and school grades that are used to exclude underprepared applicants "predict" performance in college. This is the equivalent of saying that a hospital or a clinic should refuse to admit or treat the sickest patients because their condition "predicts" a poorer outcome than would be the case for patients with less serious illnesses.

Selectivity in admissions also is frequently rationalized on educational grounds: The brightest students need to be around other bright students in order to realize their maximum potential. This is, in effect, the "center of excellence" argument, where the best students and the best faculty and the greatest resources are concentrated in one place.

This concept poses serious problems when it is viewed from a systems perspective: What civic interest is served by concentrating the least well-prepared students and the least resources in a separate set of institutions? How can such an arrangement be rationalized in terms of the larger interest of the community and the society?

Creating a real higher education community
While American colleges and universities can be justifiably proud of their diversity and autonomy, a collection of 3,400 institutions simply "doing their individual things" does not make for a coherent or effective system. The problem is not that we are all so wonderfully individual and diverse, but rather that the sum total of our individual uncoordinated efforts doesn't always add up to a meaningful whole.

Nowhere is the tension between individual and community needs better illustrated than in the case of the lower-performing or remedial student. Among institutions that have more applicants than available places -- and this includes most of the baccalaureate-granting colleges -- nobody really wants these students.

Such a policy might make sense from the myopic perspective of an individual institution that is striving for "excellence" in conventional terms, but it makes no sense from the perspective of an educational system that is trying to educate the entire citizenry. If underprepared students are shunned by most institutions because they threaten their sense of academic excellence, how can we ever hope to give any real priority to educating them?

Rather than seeing the underprepared student as a burden or as a threat to our excellence, we need to understand that we and the society and our democracy have an enormous stake in what happens to these students.

The systems approach
As long as institutions continue to operate independently and to persist in their traditional beliefs about excellence, any institution automatically puts its "excellence" at risk if it unilaterally chooses either to admit substantially greater numbers of underprepared students or to invest substantially more resources in educating such students.

One possible consequence of such a change in policy would be that the institution's main constituencies -- its alumni, donors and prospective students, together with their parents, teachers and counselors -- will begin to believe that the institution is "slipping" or "in decline" because it is "lowering its standards." This is a real concern that underscores the need for institutions to address the underpreparation problem collaboratively.

If we see fit to initiate a "systems level" discussion of underpreparation, it will soon become obvious that all types of institutions must share some of the responsibility for meeting this challenge, much like the agreement that insurance companies in most states have reached to share part of the responsibility for insuring "high risk" drivers.

It also will become obvious that the secondary school people should be invited to join in the conversation, and that we higher education folk must eventually form much closer partnerships with the lower schools in the interests of enhancing the quality of pre-collegiate education.

Other benefits of collaboration
The interinstitutional "systems" conversations being advocated here could help to dispel some of the myths about underpreparation: for example, that such students are simply incapable of learning, or that this problem is an issue only for certain types of institutions (a high percentage of freshman at the University of California, for example, are required to take remedial English).

It also would address some of the core issues that individual institutions will not, or simply cannot, address on their own: How are different types of institutions going to divide up the responsibility for teaching underprepared students? Is it educationally sound simply to track most of them into community colleges, which have the most limited educational resources? Are there structural changes -- such as making each community college a part of a university -- that would help to bring more educational resources to bear on this problem? Can some of the university's educational and social science research capability be focused more directly on assessing the impact of various approaches to remediation?

Research on programs for underprepared students and preparation of faculty to teach such students should be a collaborative effort carried out at the systems level. In this way, the different approaches taken in different institutions can be viewed as a grand "natural experiment," where evaluators in the various institutional settings work together to identify the most effective educational strategies for the system.

Possibilities for action
The real question, I suppose, is how to change from an individualistic to a community mentality. I sometimes have fantasies that, some day soon, Harvard will call together all of the postsecondary institutions in the Boston area and just say, "Let's do it." The fantasy continues: UC Berkeley, not to be outdone, calls Stanford and all the other Bay Area campuses together and says, "Let's do it." And the other prestigious flagship universities -- Michigan, UCLA, Wisconsin, Texas, Washington, and the rest -- follow suit.

Fantasy or not, one thing seems certain: If institutions at the top of the pecking order, such as Harvard and Berkeley, see fit to deviate from the sacred cow of selectivity, this in effect "gives permission'' to the rest of us to do it.

Current political trends, however, seem to be headed in the opposite direction: Major public college systems such as the City University of New York and the California State University are talking about "phasing out" remedial education. If the more elite public and private institutions continue to stand passively on the sidelines, these wrongheaded, antidemocratic and self-destructive efforts to dump the underprepared completely out of the public college system may well succeed.

Another possible scenario would involve an initiative from state government. What if the legislature of a large state like New York, California or Texas were to establish an incentive funding program which would, in effect, put a bounty on each underprepared student who successfully completes a postsecondary education program? Such an initiative would almost certainly change the institutional perception of the underprepared student from a "liability" to an "asset."

Still another possibility would be grass-roots efforts, possibly encouraged or sponsored by regional consortia or by national associations like the American Council on Education, where groups of similar institutions would jointly agree to substantially expand and upgrade their programs for underprepared students.

Some concluding thoughts
The problem that plagues our contemporary democracy is in many respects the same problem that de Tocqueville identified more than 150 years ago: the tension between individualism and community. Even our most recent research on students highlights the importance of community; the single most important source of influence on the individual student turns out to be the peer group.

We associate freedom with individualism, and democracy with community, but the two are really inseparable: We create our own democracy and our government through our individual beliefs and actions, while at the same time the condition and quality of our community and democracy defines what kind of individual freedoms and what kind of life we enjoy. The real question is what kind of community and democracy we want to have.

An open inquiry into our most deeply felt beliefs will show that our preoccupation with acquiring resources, enhancing our institutional reputations, and being smart and being seen by others as smart has affected practically everything we do, and that many of these effects are contrary not only to our own best interests as academics, but also to the educational mission of our institutions.

Alexander W. Astin is Allan M. Cartter Professor of Higher Education, and director of the Higher Education Research Institute, at UCLA.

This article was adapted from a paper presented at the American Council on Education's conference, "Higher Education and Civic Responsibility," in Tallahassee, Florida in June.

Photo by Alex Koester for CrossTalk

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