Surprises About College Remediation

Surprises About College Remediation on ParentChat with ReginaYou couldn’t know less about college remedial courses. That’s what I found out from a recent report just released by Education Reform Now. It was an eye-opening read for me and will be for you, too, parents. In case you think that remedial classes are where low-income kids from underfunded urban high schools hang out once they go to the local community college, you are wrong—at least about half the time anyway.

Here are just a few quotations that should make your head spin as you think both about your own children and about our nation’s children (see the excellent full report, co-authored by Mary Nguyen Barry and Michael Dannenberg, for more information):

  • “In 2011, over half a million rising college freshmen—approximately one in four students entering college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of enrollment in an institution of higher education.”
  • “The aggregate additional, direct college expenses these half million students and families had to pay out of pocket for remedial coursework in the first year . . . was nearly $1.5 billion.”
  • “Of those half million students, nearly half—45 percent—came from middle, upper-middle, and high-income families.”
  • “Only 57 percent were enrolled in public community colleges.”
  • At private four-year colleges, “remedial students from the top 20 percent of national family incomes report taking one more developmental class than students from the bottom 20 percent of national family incomes: 2.7 vs. 1.6 classes.”
  • “Underprepared students from families in the top income quintile (incomes above $113,440) that attended private nonprofit four-year colleges spent on average over $12,000 extra to study content they should have learned in high school.”
  • “First-time full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students who take a developmental education course in the first year after high school graduation are 74 percent more likely to drop out of college than first-time full-time non-remedial students.”
  • “Even among those that do graduate, first-time full-time [bachelor’s degree-seeking] remedial students take 11 months longer . . . to complete [their degree] than non-remedial students.”

In reflecting on all this in our USACollegeChat podcast episode this week (“Episode 76: College Remedial Course Statistics You Didn’t Know”), my cohost Marie Segares and I simply say, “What is wrong with this picture and whose fault is it?” Because anybody can see that something is plainly wrong.

Is it that colleges have unreasonable standards? Is it that high schools are not doing the job they should be doing in preparing kids for college? Is it that high schools are inflating grades to get more kids to graduate and to get more kids into better colleges? Is it that more and more kids are going to college when some probably shouldn’t?

You can choose your own favorite explanation, but I am putting a healthy share of the blame on high schools. I don’t do that lightly (having co-founded a public high school in New York City not so long ago), but I do it, just the same. I have watched kids struggle with remedial English and math courses in college, sometimes having to take them more than once, condemned to a purgatory of remediation from which many never escape—a purgatory of lackluster courses, often taught by adjuncts who are not full-time employees of the college. Anyone can see that’s not going to end well.

And what about all the talk of making kids “college ready”—talk that has increasingly flooded the education world in the past five years, talk from researchers as well as from high school educators? If you believe the data in this report, high schools are failing to make one in four college freshmen “college ready”—and that’s not counting the kids who didn’t make it to college in the first place.

As a parent, you probably can’t solve this problem. But if you would like to go into your child’s high school years with your eyes open, here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your high school principal to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the high school have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your principal does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Ask your superintendent to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the school district have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your superintendent does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Make sure that your child’s English and math skills are improving every year of high school and that your child takes challenging courses in both fields.
  • Check to see that your child is reading nonfiction and fiction and writing coherent and analytical pieces every week (and not all in English class).
  • Read what your child is writing for school assignments before they are turned in to satisfy yourself about the quality of your child’s writing.
  • If you are thinking to spend money on an SAT prep course, consider whether that money would be better spent on making sure that your child is actually improving his or her English and math skills and not just learning how to take the test—get a tutor if your child needs help and enroll your child in an enrichment summer course at a nearby college if he or she doesn’t.

When your child complains about your increased attention to his or her English and math skills, say this: “College remedial courses are the last place you want to be, because you might never get out.” That should do it.

Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Solution

Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Solution | ParentChat with ReginaMost schools are better at telling parents what children will be having for lunch than they are at explaining what children will be learning the rest of the day. So I was not surprised—though I was concerned—when a recent nationwide Gallup poll reported that only 32 percent of superintendents agreed or strongly agreed that “parents have a good understanding of our district’s academic model and curriculum” (quoted from the November survey report entitled Understanding Perspectives on Public Education in the U.S.—Results of a Gallup Survey of K–12 School District Superintendents: Survey 2).

Many administrators and teachers—and even some board members, who should know better—think that very few parents have the time and background they would need in order to think constructively and critically about what their kids are learning in the classroom. But sometimes parents know more than you think.

The problem is to figure out how districts should provide parents with the help they need in order to get a good understanding of their district’s curriculum—because I would like to see those Gallup poll numbers go up next time around.

I have found that even school districts with curriculum objectives, approved by their own local school boards, rarely communicate those objectives to parents—that is, curriculum objectives that detail what students are supposed to learn. My nonprofit solved that problem years ago. I showed the solution to a savvy superintendent quite recently. He said, “If only we had it! It would make such a difference.” Well, here “it” is.

When my nonprofit organization was working in Cleveland for the Federal District Court, the school district was the subject of more Court orders on desegregation than you could count. Among other things, the Court was deadly serious about improving the reading achievement of Cleveland students and about closing the gap in the reading test scores of Cleveland’s black and white students. We did a lot of things in Cleveland to try to make that happen—with remarkably good results. But maybe the most surprising thing we did was to send home checklists of the newly revised and improved reading objectives to parents of all Cleveland public school children in grades 1–9.

Many people told Roger Lulow, the smart and gutsy State-appointed superintendent, that this idea was a waste of time. Lots of Cleveland parents won’t even be able to read the “parent checklists,” people said. After all, the objectives in the parent checklists were the exact same objectives that the teachers themselves were teaching in the classrooms. And even if parents could read them, people said, they wouldn’t be able to help their kids learn them. Fortunately, Roger didn’t listen.

Instead, we went on to write parent handbooks—one for each grade. Each handbook contained the reading objectives, of course. For each objective, we provided a short explanation of what the objective meant, a couple of easy-to-do activities for use at home to help kids learn it, and a test question just like the ones that would be used to test that objective in the new district tests we had written. The user-friendly parent handbooks turned out to be so helpful that churches and community groups started using them to tutor kids in after-school programs.

This is how a district can make its curriculum an open book for parents. This is how to get that Gallup poll number up.

A few years later, we were working in Savannah, where we had just revised and upgraded the K–8 English, math, science, social studies, and health curricula. Savannah’s new superintendent, the remarkable Ron Etheridge, decided to send parents all of the new curriculum objectives for the grades their children were in—just as we had done in Cleveland with reading.

We broke down the curriculum objectives into marking periods and sent them home every six weeks so that parents wouldn’t be overwhelmed. We formatted the objectives, as we had in Cleveland, as actual checklists with boxes in front of each objective so that parents could keep track of what their children were learning. People were worried that Ron was wasting the taxpayers’ money. But we knew that he wasn’t—because we had talked to Savannah parents first.

Ron persisted for a year, sending home checklist after checklist after checklist. The next August when school opened, the central office was late sending out the first parent checklists. Principals around the district said that their phones were ringing off the hook, with parents saying, “Where is my checklist? How do you expect me to help my child this year without my new checklist?”

We have sent out parent checklists in a variety of districts, including in one tiny rural northern California district filled with the kids of migrant workers. They always work.

Research and common sense tell us that a goal is much more likely to be reached when everyone is focused on that same goal. Parent checklists help keep everyone’s focus on student learning—objective by objective.

We often say to groups of parents in meetings, “How many of you would make any use at all of a parent checklist of the academic skills your child is expected to learn? For example, would you bring it to a parent–teacher conference? Would you talk to your child about some of the academic skills listed? Would you put it on the refrigerator with a magnet?”

In such an audience, some parents’ hands will always go up—sometimes half of them. Then we say, “What if half of you used the parent checklist in some sensible way? What if only 25 percent of you did? What if only 10 percent of you did? Would learning improve in your school?” The answer from parents is always the same—“Yes.” And that’s the truth. Learning would improve in a school if even 10 percent of the parents were paying attention to exactly what children were expected to learn.

We used to tell audiences of school staff members and board members that printing checklists to distribute to parents doesn’t cost much—maybe a dollar each. We used to say that districts couldn’t think of a better way to spend a dollar per student—that is, a cheaper way to improve learning. I guess now a district could put parent checklists on its website so the district isn’t spending anything at all on printing. Or a district could do both, because not every parent is going to go onto the website. And a district could print those checklists in whatever languages its parents speak. Districts still can’t think of a better way to spend a dollar per student.

So that’s my solution for how to get that Gallup number up.

It is time to take a look at what your superintendent is doing to make sure that parents in your district have a good understanding of your curriculum:

All parents: Ask your school board to discuss how important it is to the board that parents have a good understanding of the curriculum. Ask the board to get input from your PTAs as part of the discussion. Ask the board to have the superintendent rate district parents’ current understanding of the curriculum, just as the superintendents who responded to the Gallup poll did.

Ask the board to discuss the idea of creating parent checklists of the objectives that make up your district’s curriculum. Does your district have clearly written objectives that could be disseminated to parents? If not, should it? How should parent checklists be disseminated to parents—on the district website, at school open houses, by children taking them home, or by mail?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to talk with the superintendent about these ideas before the meeting.

If you are interested, you can download a free copy of one of the parent checklists my organization created for the Early College high school I co-founded in New York City. In these checklists, we used the New York State Learning Standards as the content. Your checklists could use state standards, too, if they are any good and if your district doesn’t have specific curriculum objectives adopted by the board. Read the cover letter from founding principal Chris Aguirre to his parents. You will see that he had expectations for everyone—not just for his students. 

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Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Problem

Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Problem | ParentChat with ReginaOnly 32 percent of superintendents in a nationwide Gallup poll agreed or strongly agreed that “parents in my school district have a good understanding of our district’s academic model and curriculum,” according to the report of the November poll, Understanding Perspectives on Public Education in the U.S.—Results of a Gallup Survey of K–12 School District Superintendents: Survey 2. Almost as many superintendents (27 percent) disagreed or strongly disagreed, and the rest gave a neutral answer. While this was only one question in the survey, which covered a variety of topics, it is the question that concerns me the most.

So, let’s say this again: Only about one-third of superintendents thought that parents in their own district had a good understanding of their own district’s curriculum. So sad. (By the way, I am setting aside the notion of whatever Gallup meant by “academic model,” because even after 40 years of experience in curriculum and assessment I have no idea what “academic model” means.)

I am not blaming parents for the low score. It is hard for parents to get a good understanding of their district’s curriculum without help from the administrators and teachers in their district. Too many districts don’t provide that help. The Gallup poll numbers actually just confirmed that.

Over the years, I have met my share of administrators and teachers who didn’t really want parents to get too involved with the district’s curriculum. Their view was that curriculum is something that professional educators should develop and then protect. That attitude explains, in part, the low score.

But, what should districts do to give parents a good understanding of the curriculum, if most of us—at least most of us parents—can agree that it would be a good thing for parents to know what their kids are learning?

Well, many districts have some kind of curriculum night in the fall when parents come to school and meet with their kids’ teachers to hear about what students will be studying during the year. That’s fine, though it is difficult for lots of parents—especially parents who work more than one job or parents who work nights or parents who travel for work or parents who have to stay home with small children—to get to school on that one evening for such an event.

Many districts ask their teachers to hand out an overview of the grade or the course for parents and students on the first day of school. Most of what is usually in those overviews, however, is not curriculum. Curriculum is what kids learn—not how teachers teach or how teachers judge learning or how teachers run the classroom and discipline the students. There is very little actual curriculum in those teacher-generated overviews.

Many districts these days put their curricula online on their websites. A parent can simply click on the curriculum for third grade math or middle school social studies or high school biology. I’ve done that. Sometimes those curricula are clearly written and informative. Sometimes they are just confusing, containing a mixture of state standards, learning objectives, instructional resources, methods of assessment, and more. It can be hard for a parent to sift through all of that in order to get an understanding of the curriculum. In some cases, of course, a parent might not have easy access to a computer to check out the curricula. In some cases, the curricula on the website might not be provided in the language that a parent speaks.

I wonder how many of the superintendents who did not agree that parents had a good understanding of the curriculum—that was, in total, 68 percent of them—have done anything at all since the poll was taken last November to improve that situation in their own district. Making the effort to help parents gain that understanding is entirely in their control, of course.

So, what’s the solution? Stay tuned for the next installment of ParentChat with Regina. I promise you a solution and the steps parents (and their superintendents) should take before the next Gallup poll. Parents, we need the superintendents to give you a higher score.

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Time To Departmentalize?

Time To Departmentalize? on ParentChat with Regina | When is it time for elementary school kids to leave their classroom teacher so that they can be taught by teachers specializing in one subject field?When is it time for elementary school kids to leave their classroom teacher so that they can be taught by teachers specializing in one subject field? According to a story from Chalkbeat New York (by Monica Disare and Sarah Darville on January 7, 2016), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to ensure that more eighth graders have strong preparation for algebra is leading to designating some classroom teachers as math teachers for fifth graders. The New York City teachers who may volunteer or be chosen by their principals for the new math assignments will receive additional training over the next 12 months—which certainly can’t hurt.

In New York City, there are already departments for each school subject in many middle schools, starting in sixth grade—as there are in middle schools in most school districts across the U.S. So “departmentalization” is not a new idea. It has been used for a very long time in high schools, where it is expected. It has been used for a long time in many middle schools and in junior high schools before them, where it is accepted. And it has been used in some elementary schools over the years, too. In the 1960s when I was in fourth grade, we began switching classes for math and for language arts (of course, switching teachers allowed for ability grouping in those days—and still could).

Whether New York City should have specialized math teachers in fifth grade in order to improve the math performance of its students is not the question here. The question is whether you should be departmentalizing in your elementary schools, as likely some of you already are. The next question is whether that departmentalization should lead to ability grouping, which a school can pull off a lot easier with departmentalized teachers than with general classroom teachers. Why? Because one math teacher can teach four or five levels of math to different groups of kids in a day, but one classroom teacher cannot teach all those levels of math and all of the other subjects to 30 kids in a day. But why departmentalize just in math? Why not language arts? And, while you are at it, why not science and social studies? Who is answering these questions in your schools?

There are certainly pros and cons to departmentalization, though my feeling is that the pros outweigh the cons. That is probably true at a fairly early age—even by first or second grade. Teachers who are expert in teaching one subject very well (just as high school teachers are) might be better, in the long run, for bright kids, average kids, and struggling kids than teachers who are spreading themselves thin over four or more subject fields. Furthermore, kids who have trouble getting along with one teacher have more chances in a day to form a bond with other teachers, who might suit them better. Maybe the New York City plan doesn’t go nearly far enough.

What did New York City parents say about math teachers for fifth graders? The article didn’t mention any parent input into the plan or any parent response to the plan. I hope that would not be true in your school district.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your elementary school address departmentalization:

  • Elementary school parents: Ask your school board whether the board has a policy on departmentalization—that is, ask whether the board has given the superintendent any policy guidance on the grade level or school level at which teachers should teach one academic subject rather than be general classroom teachers. If the board does not have such a policy, ask the board to consider the adoption of one, after getting the input of parents and, of course, of teachers and of principals.

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting. Here are some questions that the board and/or the superintendent should be able to answer for you: Who decides now when schools start departmentalizing—the board, the superintendent, or individual school principals? How is departmentalization operating in various schools in the district? Which subjects are departmentalized at each grade level? Do teachers and principals believe that departmentalization has been successful? Do they believe it should be extended into lower grade levels? Has departmentalization led to ability grouping? If so, in what grades and subjects? If so, has ability grouping proved to be effective in teaching your students?

If the decision about departmentalization is left to individual school principals, ask your principal how it operates in your school. How were decisions about when to departmentalize made? How were parents involved in those decisions? How effective have those practices been? Is ability grouping used in conjunction with departmentalization? Should it be? Is it time to rethink any of those decisions? How would the principal know if it were time?

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