The Limits of Magical Thinking and Software-in-Isolation in Addressing Remedial Education

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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In "When You're Not Ready," Ashley Smith, reports for Inside Higher Ed on how Florida's remedial education changes result in higher drop out rates. She writes,

This passage is useful for unpacking the issues at hand.

First, the intent of the law: Legislators tried to address a pressing issue: too many remediation programs fail to keep students in college. Those students, likely to be poorer, take out loans to take these courses, accumulating debt. In Florida, some students were placed on a remediation path that required nine courses: 3 remedial writing, 3 remedial math, and 3 remedial reading.

And this issue is not a Florida issue alone. The National Conference of State Legislators explores it here,, offering suggestions legislators can study and encourage colleges to follow. The models they suggest appear in a section called "Encourage Colleges to Innovate Remedial Education," and include: accelerated remedial course sequences; learning communities; traditional college courses applying an ALP model; and "remedial courses combined with job training."

All of those models -- explore the links in each to learn more about them -- work because they are serious about applying insights from the scholarship of teaching and learning into programs that were developed and supported over time. They include in their operation time and space for faculty professional development.

Sadly, Florida legislators, rushed the process. In 2011 they passed a law that "made college placement testing mandatory for most 11th graders. High school students who don’t make the cut are required to take courses during their senior year that are designed to address remedial needs" (Fain, Remediation if You Want It). In 2013, after only two years of implementation, they passed a law that says, essentially, if you graduate from a Florida high school, you will not need remediation in college, allowing students to opt out of remediation testing and/or remedial courses. Those are the students now failing more than they had when remedial testing and placement was required.

Yes, the situation they sought to address was indeed dire and unconscionable. But if the legislature had been serious about addressing the issue, they'd have done more than write a law based on the magical thinking that asserts by virtue of graduating high school in Florida, you are ipso facto, presto chango, College Ready. Asking high schools in one grade -- the 12th -- to address deficiencies in college readiness that have grown over the prior 11 grades, and to demand that change only two years before changing the rules for college remedial testing, shows how little legislators know about systems and people, about teaching and learning. They view the education process as a factory.  They asserted that a quality control test and then quick retooling of the assembly line to remove defects is all that is needed. But education ain't no factory, and in real life, even good business people know that to change operations takes more care and planning, retraining and motivation of workers, than simply the dictatorial insistence to fix it, damn it!

So the high schools were set up to fail because they were not given the time nor funding to develop a program that could address in one year the remedial needs of students tested in 11th grade. An analysis of the bill's effects --  -- shows the changes the required, but makes no mention of support or monies for institution remedial courses in high schools or training faculty to teach such courses. The bill itself,, made available funds only for more standardized testing:

But no where did that bill suggest or request or require funding for faculty and curriculum development to met the demands the bill makes. Similarly, colleges faced with de facto placement of students not ready for college courses in those courses received no professional development support for faculty on how to address courses with mixed ability students. Some programs on some campuses turned to textbook publishers, hoping that putting students in online tutorial programs via required supplemental labs would do the trick.

I do a lot of campus travel to Florida community colleges, working closely with several departments on using what modest technology Macmillan has to help address remedial needs in the remedial courses that do fill, and as well the traditional first year writing courses that are seeing students who in the past would have been in a remedial course.  I am convinced that simply asking students to do online activities, even if they're adaptive, such as our LearningCurve software is, or comprehensive, such as our Launch Pad Solo for Readers and Writers seeks to be, will not work for most students in isolation.

Unless the software's use finds integration and purpose in the course work students are doing, and unless instructors create assignments that give students practice applying what the software teaches to their own and classmates' writings, their own and classmates' reading responses, the software will do nothing but get the students good at doing the activities the software offers. Don't get me wrong, LearningCurve does a good job of teaching the content of a handbook. So the module in LaunchPad Solo for Readers and Writers on fragments explains why fragments can be issue, helps distinguish between their intentional and accidental use, instructs a bit with video to complement the text, includes a LearningCurve multiple choice exercise in identifying and defining what a fragment is, and offers a consoling ten question multiple choice concluding quiz students will almost always pass if they do the unit that comes before the quiz.

But doing all that doesn't mean students, in the heat of composing and peer reviewing and revising, will write with full control over fragments. Because the software doesn't give them practice in writing, peer review, sharing writing, talking to other writers, reading good writing, discussing that writing with classmates. Those necessary and student centered communal learning activities, which research shows to be the most effective means of learning to read and write, require classroom teachers to set a safe place for learning and sharing, and assignments that encourage every student, weak and strong, to participate, and to improve.

As Joshua Kim writes in "EdTech and Supporting Teaching by Teachers,"

And when I visit and work with faculty, they are ache to learn how to help students succeed, and we try help them make our technology assistive rather than a "false idol." Faculty want more time and space to try new approaches. But with increases in teaching loads, gutted support for community colleges from the state, an increasing reliance on part-time faculty, administrators running academic departments who do not rise from faculty ranks nor necessarily have degrees in the discipline the supervise, support is sparse, time is limited, and morale is low.

That work -- the work of designing courses to make the best use of what software can do, in the context of the student readiness reality Florida legislators created by burdening community colleges with essentially unfunded mandates -- is the work that needs to be done. Unless and until it is done, unless their is fully funded and sustained faculty and curriculum professional development at the high school and community college level -- perhaps in summer joint high school/college sessions -- neither of the two bills above will achieve the aims, worthy aims, the legislator intended.

But what do you want to bet that now that those laws have passed and aren't working, the blame will get pushed not to the lawmakers but to the schools and teachers not given the tools needed to make it all work?