I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, May 13, 2016

Beating Up Schools With The College Remediation Club

Count on the NY Times Editorial Board to credulously accept any piece of education policy propaganda shoved into their hands:
The idea that schools in privileged communities are failing to prepare significant numbers of students is borne out in a striking new study showing that nearly half of the students who begin their college careers taking remedial courses come from middle- and upper-income families. Not only do remedial courses add more than $1 billion each year to students’ bills for tuition, but students who start out in these classes take longer to graduate and are far more likely to drop out. 
The study, by Education Reform Now, a nonprofit think tank...
OK, stop right there.

As Diane Ravitch correctly points out, ERN is in no way, shape or form a "think tank":
The editorial referred to Education Reform Now as a “nonprofit think tank.” ERN is nonprofit but it is certainly not a think tank. ERN is the nonprofit (c3) arm of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), the organization of hedge fund managers that loves charter schools, high-stakes testing, and Common Core. It has a vested interest in saying that American public schools are failing, failing, failing so as to spur its campaign to privatize public education.

ERN sponsors “Camp Philos,” an annual affair where important political figures meet in the woods with hedge fund managers to figure out how to reform public schools that none of them ever sent their own children to. In 2014, its star education reformer was Governor Cuomo. At its 2015 meeting on Martha’s Vineyard, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a keynote speaker, sharing his knowledge of how to reform public education by closing public schools en masse.

The staff director of ERN is Shavar Jeffries, who ran for mayor of Newark and lost to Ras Baraka. Jeffries was supported by DFER, which hired him after his loss.

Consider the board of directors. Every one of them is from Wall Street.

The authors of the report are staff members at ERN who come from public policy backgrounds.

Curiously, the editorial has a link to the words “Education Department,” but no link to the ERN policy brief.
Now, I'm not one to discount a piece of research solely on the basis of who funds it. But if this were a report funded by, say, a teachers union, there is absolutely no way the Times would simply say it came from a "think tank." It's absurd for the Times to pretend this report was not prepared in the service of a particular agenda.

But, again, I'm not prepared to discount it solely on the basis of who put up the scratch. So what does the report itself say?
Hundreds of thousands of American families across all income levels are spending billions each year in extra college costs because our high schools are graduating too many students unprepared for college.  That’s a fact most may not realize, because current discussions around postsecondary remedial education – prerequisite courses that carry zero credit toward a college degree and represent content and skills students should have learned in high school already – are often segregated to low-income students and community colleges. But in truth, many middle-class and upper-income families bear the brunt of extra costs that come with required remedial classes in all college sectors for students from all income levels. In fact, at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, the children of upper-income families are taking more remedial classes than students from low-income families.
I must say that the graphic arts department at ERN is quite good: they've decorated the cover with a winsome young undergrad, mouth slightly agape, staring straight at the camera as if to say: "I can't believe my high school failed me so badly!"

These days, college remediation is the reformster 5 iron: the club they seem to want to pull out of the bag first. Except this club is being used to beat up America's K-12 school system -- particularly suburban schools. Read the thing yourself, then see if you wind up thinking the same things I did:

- When did we decide that the K-12 system was solely responsible for our current college remediation rates? Don't the colleges themselves have some culpability here? Why are they accepting so many students if those students aren't up to their standards?

From the report (p.6):
There is a stark difference, however, at private nonprofit four-year colleges: there, remedial students from the top 20 percent of national family incomes report taking nearly three remedial courses, one more class than students from the bottom 20 percent of national family incomes: 2.7 vs. 1.6 classes. In other words, in the most expensive colleges and universities, the wealthiest students need more remedial education than the poorest ones.
Well, OK -- what's the point? Is ERN arguing that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds get a better high school education than students at wealthier schools? Somehow, I doubt it.

Perhaps something else is going on that is a bit embarrassing for private colleges: maybe they aren't basing their admissions decisions entirely on merit. Maybe they're allowing more affluent students to trade in on social and cultural capital to gain access to their colleges. Maybe they're using things like SAT scores, which are highly correlated to income, as ways to convert class advantages into a phony notion of "talent." Maybe they're more in the business of credentialing than educating.


In any case: how is any of this the fault of the K-12 public school system? Are affluent suburban schools supposed to be preparing all of their students for admission into elite private colleges? Doesn't that directly contradict the notion of a true meritocracy? Or is everyone supposed to be above average?

In addition: don't students themselves have some degree of responsibility for whether or not they are prepared for college?

Are we ever going to allow for the possibility that students themselves should have to own their academic records?

- When did we decide that "ready for college work" was some sort of objective standard? Is it not possible that MIT has different standards for mathematics facility than some less well-known liberal arts colleges? Is it not possible some schools set the bar differently for writing than others?

There is no single, objective standard that constitutes "ready for college work." It's ridiculous to pretend otherwise -- and yet that's exactly what this report does.

- Does an analysis based on a dataset with student-reported survey responses and low response rates really justify the sweeping conclusions found here? The dataset used for the report comes from the National Center for Education Statistics' National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). Which is fine... so long as you acknowledge the limits of the data (p. 57):
4.4.2 Interview Response Rates
Some 85,000 students, approximately 69 percent of the eligible sample of 123,600, completed the NPSAS: 12 interview (table 21). Across institution level and control, response rates ranged from 55 percent for private for-profit less-than 2-year institutions to 82 percent for private nonprofit 4-year doctorate-granting institutions. Potential FTBs [first time beginners] were significantly less likely to respond than other undergraduates (60 percent compared with 73 percent) (χ2 (1, N = 105,931) = 2075.23, p < .0001). Graduate and professional students (83 percent) completed at a higher rate than undergraduate students (66 percent) (χ2 (1, N = 123,601) = 2013.63, p < .0001). [emphasis mine]
In other words: the first time beginners that this study relies on had a response rate of only 60 percent.  That alone ought to merit a few cautionary words in the report, don't you think?

- How many of the students enrolled in "remedial" courses are actually taking them for credit? From the data file documentation (p. G-34):
Taken any remedial courses since high school
Since you completed high school [{if TB4JULY = 0} and through June 30, 2012, did you take {else} have you taken] any remedial or developmental courses to improve your basic skills in English, math, reading, or writing? (Remedial or developmental courses are used to strengthen your skills before you take your first college- level course in math, reading, or other subjects. Students are usually assigned to these courses on the basis of a placement test taken before the school year begins. Often, these courses do not count for credit toward graduation.) [emphasis mine]
In other words: maybe your remedial courses didn't count for credit... but maybe they did. The fact is that we just don't know, given the way this survey is worded. Is it really the worst thing in the world for an undergrad to take a "developmental" course and get credit for it?

- How many of the students enrolled in remedial courses speak English as a second language? This was actually one of my first thoughts as I started the report... and yet, nothing about English language learners is ever mentioned.

Here's a quick table I made at the NCES PowerStats website:

Of the students who speak English at home, 21.3 percent took at least one remedial course. 28.1 percent of Spanish speakers, however, took a remedial course; in other words, there is a significant percentage of students taking college remedial courses who are likely taking them because English isn't their first language. 

English language learners can take 4 to 7 years to achieve academic English proficiency. Did the authors of this report even consider this?

- If we're going to add up the cost of remedial courses (with a highly dubious method), shouldn't we also add up the savings of all the AP and IB courses for which colleges give students credit? Courses paid for by the taxpayers?

In 2014, 2.3 million students sat for 4.2 million AP exams; many more were in the International Baccalaureate program. I can't find (yet) statistics on how this translates into college credits, but it clearly must count for something.

I think it's ridiculous to count room and board toward the cost of remedial education -- people gotta eat, right? But if we're going to go all in, we'd also have to go in the other direction. According to the College Board, taking AP courses increases the chances of getting a degree on time. So how much money has the American K-12 public school system saved undergrads because they got credit for their AP and IB courses, which were paid for by the taxpayers?

Again: did the authors of this report even consider this?

 - Where is any evidence that the Common Core or its aligned tests will better prepare students for college? This part of the report is utterly laughable:
In fact, little noticed is that the price of opposition – and perhaps willful ignorance by some – to Common Core implementation includes how much more students and families across all socioeconomic backgrounds must pay for college due to inadequate high school preparation. At least among those students going directly to college, we find that rising college freshmen and their families are paying extremely high out-of-pocket expenses for prerequisite, zero-credit, remedial coursework that covers content and skills that students should have already learned in high school. [emphasis mine]
Oh, please. How do we know that implementing the Common Core leads to better college preparation? Show me any empirical evidence this is the case. Anything. I dare you.

You can't. As I've shown before, "high standards," by themselves, are not at all predictors of a state's academic outcomes. The so-called "honesty gap" is a fiction. Further: show me any evidence that a state's academic outcomes improve when they use standards-aligned, statewide end-of-course tests. Tennessee has had them for years, yet their college attainment rate is dwarfed by states like New Jersey.

Even if we accept the notion that college remediation rates are too high, the idea that simply implementing the Common Core and administering aligned standardized tests will solve the "problem" is not supported by the slightest shred of evidence.

There's one other thing that comes to my mind when I read a report like this: just how much money is currently being spent to find new and exciting ways to convince the American public our school systems suck -- especially in the suburbs? This report sports the Education Post logo, and we all know Peter Cunningham was given millions and millions of dollars to promote the notion that America's schools stink. How much of that money flowed to this report?

I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm getting sick and tired of this. Those of us who actually show up every day and do the job are being blamed for problems we didn't create and can't be expected to solve on our own. Then we're beat over the head with "research" that is regurgitated to the public via media outlets like the NY Times, which seems to have no interest whatsoever in thinking critically about what its reprints.

ERN's report implies that if we simply "raise" standards and make all students take more standardized tests, our college remediation "problem" will be solved. That argument is so stupid on its face I can't believe anyone would make it. Would you tell a pole vaulter he'll get better if we just raise the bar another few feet? Don't you have to come up with a plan to train him to improve?

Our schools are underfunded and segregated. We all agree that teachers are important, but those who choose to enter the profession pay a compensation penalty. We refuse to seriously address the consequences of our nation's economic inequity on the lives of our children outside of school. We allow the nation's conversation about education to be dominated by those who push for more "choice," when the evidence suggests "choice" creates, at best, extremely small positive effects and, at worst, causes real damage.

Maybe ERN can get their Wall Street patrons to pay for a report about that.

Yeah, that's not really our thing...


joeswell said...

Jazzman... another outstanding post... You left out one of the major reasons why colleges are "assigning" so many students to "remedial" courses... they can charge more money... make students take some made up "placement" test... set the "passing" score so that there are many students that "fail" and then charge the students more tuition... it's a scam.... the families get to pay more money and the college gets more $$$$ in their coffers...

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

The NY Times itself has published multiple articles indicating that results on remediation exams only weakly related to college outcomes and that colleges tend to over-remediate:



Is everyone just too stupid to question the exams themselves? I give up

Duke said...

Ajay S.: "Is everyone just too stupid to question the exams themselves?"