Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Basic Skills Problem at Community Colleges

Yesterday's New York Times ran an interesting education article on the lack of basic academic skills among students at the nation's community colleges. As cited in the piece, about half of all community college students need remedial courses to prepare them for the successful completion university-level academic work. The piece cites the experience of Michael Walton, who was schocked when told he needed remedial math to be able to continue in his studies at a Maryland community college:

Mr. Walton is not unusual. As the new school year begins, the nation’s 1,200 community colleges are being deluged with hundreds of thousands of students unprepared for college-level work.

Though higher education is now a near-universal aspiration, researchers suggest that close to half the students who enter college need remedial courses.

The shortfalls persist despite high-profile efforts by public universities to crack down on ill-prepared students.

Since the
City University of New York, the largest urban public university, barred students who need remediation from attending its four-year colleges in 1999, others have followed with similar steps.

California State set an ambitious goal to cut the proportion of unprepared freshmen to 10 percent by 2007, largely by testing them as high school juniors and having them make up for deficiencies in the 12th grade.

Cal State appears nowhere close to its goal. In reading alone, nearly half the high school juniors appear unprepared for college-level work.

Aside from New York City’s higher education system, at least 12 states explicitly bar state universities from providing remedial courses or take other steps like deferred admissions to steer students needing helping toward technical or community colleges.

Some students who need to catch up attend two- and four-year institutions simultaneously.

The efforts, educators say, have not cut back on the thousands of students who lack basic skills. Instead, the colleges have clustered those students in community colleges, where their chances of succeeding are low and where taxpayers pay a second time to bring them up to college level.

The phenomenon has educators struggling with fundamental questions about access to education, standards and equal opportunity.

Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford professor who was a co-author of a report on the gap between aspirations and college attainment, said that 73 percent of students entering community colleges hoped to earn four-year degrees, but that only 22 percent had done so after six years.

“You can get into school,” Professor Kirst said. “That’s not a problem. But you can’t succeed.’’

Nearly half the 14.7 million undergraduates at two- and four-year institutions never receive degrees. The deficiencies turn up not just in math, science and engineering, areas in which a growing chorus warns of difficulties in the face of global competition, but also in the basics of reading and writing.

According to scores on the 2006 ACT college entrance exam, 21 percent of students applying to four-year institutions are ready for college-level work in all four areas tested, reading, writing, math and biology.

For many students, the outlook does not improve after college. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently found that three-quarters of community college graduates were not literate enough to handle everyday tasks like comparing viewpoints in newspaper editorials or calculating the cost of food items per ounce.

The unyielding statistics showcase a deep disconnection between what high school teachers think that their students need to know and what professors, even at two-year colleges, expect them to know.

As a professor of political science at a Southern California community college, I am in constant witness to the educational struggles of the academically underprepared college-age cohort. The statistics on the need for remediation are much higher at my school (where 90 percent of students need some catch-up courses in English, math, or reading comprehension), and I imagine that's the case at area college across the region, where low levels of English acquisition, concentrated poverty in urban cores, and a culture of underachievement and enititlement undermine the abilities of contemporary college aspirants.

I was shocked -- and somewhat worn down -- by the remediation issue after my first semester of teaching at LBCC. What surprised me most -- and it still does, though I'm enlightened now -- was the wide variation in the skills of my students. Fresh out of graduate school -- equipped with my Ph.D. and a wealth of information that I eagerly hoped to impart to my charges -- I became woefully and regretfully bogged-down in dealing with the inabilities of students to pass a moderately difficult multiple-choice exam or with their unbelievably poor writing skills.

In response, I spent a couple of years reading the educational literature and boning-up on the fundamentals of pedagogy. It's made me a better teacher, though I'm jaded now on my power to affect -- in one semester -- the fundamental levels of student preparedness, which, I had learned, were formed as a result of lifelong interactions of culture, opportunity, and innate characterisitcs.

Do community college professors really teach college academics, or are our course offerings watered-down so much to meet the demands of the unready that university-level preparation is a fiction at the two-year institution? See this article on the basic skills problem for an argument that community college teachers should readjust their self-identity toward the teaching of basic skills, rather than the broader liberal arts curriculum that should be the core of the college teaching mission.

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