Remedial Students Need the Best Teachers to Make Up Lost Ground

Problems with academic rigor in our nation’s public schools are well documented, and too often students enter college seriously unprepared for post-secondary coursework. In a misguided effort to foster self-esteem, our nation’s public schools have instead produced an epidemic of self-delusion that is leaving our colleges with the unenviable task of trying to help millions of students catch up on the material they should have learned in high school.

Remedial Education—often hopefully referred to as Developmental Education—is becoming a fixture at college campuses across the nation. The percentages of developmental education courses in reading, writing, and math courses taught at individual American colleges obviously vary, but recent studies suggest that more than 60 percent of all community college students—and about 20 percent of students at four year schools—will need to take at least one developmental education course when they start college.

Sadly, many of these students received A’s and B’s throughout high school, so they are both shocked and chagrined when their college placement tests slot them into developmental education courses during their first semester.

Not surprisingly, attempting to teach in 16-week semester what was not learned in 13 years of public school is typically a high mountain to climb, and far fewer than half (some studies run as low as 10 percent) of all students who start in developmental coursework will ever complete a degree program.

The question of why so many students never advance beyond developmental courses has, also not surprisingly, become one of the most hotly debated topics at campuses across the country.

A recent Hechinger Report story identifies one factor worth considering: Remedial courses are often taught by the least experienced faculty. Although this problem certainly varies from campus to campus, these reports seem to confirm that we typically put our least able faculty into classrooms with our most unprepared students—and hope for the best.

The need for excellent teachers in developmental reading, writing, and math classes is easy enough to understand with a simple medical analogy: When you are the sickest, you need the best doctor.

It is the same when it comes to the classroom; weak teachers and academically deficient students are a horrible combination. At-risk students need excellent teachers who can help them to master complex material, manage the limited classroom time effectively, keep everyone on task, and teach good work habits.

Most importantly, teachers of developmental courses have to be motivators who are able to convince students who might be used to nothing but failure that success is possible for them—if they are willing and able to make the commitment to school. A middling teacher can do just fine with college-level students, but that same just-adequate teacher is likely going to fail a lot of desperately needy developmental students who require the best college faculty in their classrooms to succeed.

I have taught a good deal of developmental composition at my college over the years, and I’ve been successful with the vast majority of students who have hung in there and finished the semester.

Unfortunately, life sometimes gets the way, and it has been frustrating to lose students because their day care fell through, their boss changed their hours, or basic life chaos engulfed them. Dealing with the messiness of my students’ lives is something that is just part of the job in developmental courses, and teachers who are not resoundingly patient about such matters likely need to work with students who are not prone to disappoint.

I will, however, assert that teaching developmental students can be hugely rewarding—if you are the right type of teacher. A PhD might mean you an expert in some sub-specialty of your field, but that might not translate into classroom skills. Thirty years teaching at your local public school may have honed your skills to a razor-sharp point—or you could be a cranky burn-out. 

Credentials and experience are good, but the intangibles needed to cajole sometimes unwilling students toward classroom competency are critical—and not easy to define.

There is no handy system for identifying who will—and who will not—succeed with developmental students, but this is obviously an issue upon which we must focus. It is, sadly enough, utterly unrealistic to expect the tide of unprepared students swamping our nation’s colleges to recede any time soon.

Until our nation’s public schools and their misguided defenders stop denying and dissembling regarding the catastrophic academic shortcoming that infect virtually corner of our nation, it is going to be up to our nation’s colleges to do the hard and thankless work of teaching millions of students what they should have learned before ever stepping foot on a college campus.

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Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk

Andrew teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Andrew has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He is the dad of two grown children, who attended public schools in Urbana.

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