For Colleges, Are Remedial Classes Worth the Money?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

pencils (flickr user Dextera Photography (cc:by-sa))

Earlier this week in Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley said that he wants to close the “open-door” admissions policy at the City Colleges, which allows students to enroll in classes regardless of past academic performance. He says the system can’t afford to keep spending $30 million a year on remedial classes for students who aren’t prepared to handle college level work.

But for many students, remedial classes are their way into higher education, better jobs and more opportunities. 

At the University of Texas at Austin on Monday, President Obama stressed the importance of increasing the college graduation rate, and called education the “economic issue of our time.”

“It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college," he said.

But not everyone who wants to go to college is prepared to take on college-level work, which is where remedial classes come in. But are they working? Or are colleges, as Mayor Daley is arguing, spending too much on remedial classes for kids who will never graduate?

We speak with Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York. She has a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to look at how to improve remedial, or developmental, education across the country.

Also with us is Edgar Romero, who started at LaGuardia Community College in 2007, taking remedial English and math courses. He went on to become the president of the international honor society for community colleges. Now, in just a few weeks, will start at City College, with a full tuition scholarship.


Gail Mellow and Edgar Romero

Produced by:

Samantha Fields

Comments [4]

David Zapen from Miami FL

I didn't catch all of this, but it seems to confuse symptoms with the cause. America needs national standards like other countries to streamline the transition to colleges or trade schools. Nicole Sandler, formerly a host of Air America Radio, spoke of the contrast in schooling she found moving from NY to FL as a teenager. Healthcare, VPK-20 education, and mass transit must be funded and quality-controlled like the national security issues they are, no matter how nervous they makes Sean Hannity. Here in South Florida, a School Board employee tried to correct my Venn diagram, saying that all equilateral triangles were also isosceles; wrong!

Aug. 13 2010 01:10 AM
Dan Kern from Missouri

The Blueberry Story excerpts:

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers... My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice... You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society”. Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

...the speech was perfectly balanced - equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

And so began my long transformation.

Since..., I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; ... changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community.

Copyright 2002, by Jamie Robert Vollmer
Jamie Robert Vollmer, He can be reached at

Aug. 12 2010 10:57 AM
Dan Kern from Missouri

Remedial or the working names: developmental, transitional, on-the-job training, practice that some of us need.

A Fable for Developmental Educators
by Karen Martin

Once upon a time, Developmental Educators sailed upon the ark known as Traditional Psychology and Education. Each educator and psychologist was allowed two hypotheses or two theories of his/her choice aboard. And they sailed the seven seas in search of students upon which they could use their theories. In time, the hypotheses became theories, and multiplied exponentially, and the educators and psychologists were very happy.

The Developmental Educators—an off-shoot group composed of both disciplines—were uneasy. They attributed their uneasiness with the status quo to being seasick, but when they could find no psychological reason for their distress, they began to look around. They peered over the side of the ark, and were shocked at what they found. At once, they noticed two things. The sea was full of struggling students who were trying to stay afloat in an educational system that threw them out to sea and blamed them when they were not successful. Also, to their horror, the ark upon which they were sailing, overburdened with theories and new hypotheses, was sinking. The Developmental Educators tried to sound the alarm, but to no avail. They could not get permission from the Captain’s five secretaries to see him about the problem, and the secretaries could not agree on where the alarm was located.

So the Developmental Educators gathered up a few theories they thought would be useful—Maslow, Glasser, Piaget—and they jumped overboard into the sea of struggling students. They found every type of student imaginable, every race, ethnic background, learning problem, age group, and both genders. They quickly learned that if they were to stay afloat, they would have to jettison all unnecessary traditions and theories, and respond accordingly to the unpredictable sea and climate. And for their trouble, they were given the scraps of food thrown away by people from the ark.

One by one, they began to reestablish contact with each other, and soon decided to build their own boat, and many Developmental Educators advocated bringing students instead of theories aboard. It remains to be seen what will happen with the space on the boat, but it could be that the best use of it will be for teaching—that is, teaching students how to build boats.

Source: Improving Student Learning Skills by Martha Maxwell, Appendix 1-2, p. 334, c1997.

Aug. 12 2010 10:48 AM
Dave Kanegis from NY

I just caught the tail end of this interesting topic.

Although I am unaware of the precise focus of the grant, I believe that "remedial," is a term that can cause political difficulty. Basically, the complaint of many (and a valid one,) is why should students go through our public school system and then need remedial English, Math, etc. in order to succeed in College.

As a former educator, copywriter and life coach I believe the emphasis should be on developmental education. Most precisely, starting in the early grades, children need to be taught 'how to think.'

What I have seen, both as an elementary and a college adjunct is that young people need a basic framework from which to operate.

Where writing is concerned, I have worked with youngsters as early as 3rd grade, in organizing thoughts, what they want to say and then writing.

This may sound very basic, but it's not. I am not talking about the traditional outline that kids are taught to use before writing. Rather, I encourage them to tell me their story in writing. We then look at the content of the story (without judging it,) and then take the main points and begin to craft them into an essay or whatever is the intended written format.

Naturally, if you can catch kids when they are young (and involve parents) you have the ideal situation.

In working with young adults the same process applies. The big difference is that at this point they have experienced many years of frustration.

As a copywriter and life coach, I have found that combining an empowerment coaching approach to both creative and business writing, creates a powerful 1-2 punch.

Students and young adults are able to set goals, rate those goals in terms of importance to them and then have visible proof of their achievement.

Finally, what it boils down to is helping those in need of remediation to really believe they will have the ability to gain the skills they didn't develop over the years.

Coaching combined with writing/thinking exercises seems to work very well.

Dave Kanegis

Aug. 12 2010 10:39 AM

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