In 2008, Kimberly O'Neal, who had graduated from high school several years earlier, enrolled at the Gibbs campus of St. Petersburg College (formerly St. Petersburg Junior College). She was starting to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.
First she had to take the College Placement Test. She worried about passing, a fear that was not misplaced. Her low scores required her to take non-credit remedial courses. O'Neal is hardly unique. Three out of every five students in the nation's 1,200 community colleges — often disparaged as being the "13th grade" — take remedial courses.
"In high school, they gave us basic grammar and things of that sort," O'Neal said. "I never wrote a whole essay in high school. At SPC, I've written a lot of essays, and I'm doing all right."
English professor Carmen Simpson said that O'Neal did not know the difference between an adjective and a noun at the beginning. When the class ended last month, O'Neal wrote an acceptable essay and passed the class.
After 18 years of teaching remedial English, Simpson is comfortable with the complexities of her job and her obligations to students, such as O'Neal, who know they have weak skills and who lack confidence. She also teaches many recent high school graduates whose writing skills are no better than O'Neal's. One difference is that many recent grads are shocked that they must take developmental courses, which makes Simpson's work doubly tough.
"Developmental classes address the whole person," Simpson said. "All teachers are supposed to address the whole person. That's our purpose, whether you want to embrace that or not. This is especially true with remedial instructors because you're building someone's self-esteem while you're building skills in that particular discipline."
Many college professors recoil from the mere mention of remediation, and they strongly disagree with Simpson's liberal views on this issue. They argue that O'Neal and others like her are not "college material."
Some refuse to teach remedial classes if given a choice, dismissing such work as drudgery, a demeaning charade and a stain on their resumes.
The overwhelming majority of the professors I have spoken with blame the public schools for sending to them ill-prepared students, and they see themselves as "re-teaching" material that should have been taught in middle and high school.
On the other side, public school teachers hate being blamed for what they consider to be a systemic problem of America's dual education system.
Two systems of education
This standoff is a powerful indicator of the separation between the nation's two education systems, elementary and secondary schools (K-12) and postsecondary institutions, colleges and universities.
Scholars such as Michael Kirst and Andrea Venezia, in their book, From High School to College: Improving Opportunities for Success in Postsecondary Education, argue that the separation is directly responsible for the high number of students who need costly remediation in at least one math, reading or English course. The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based nonprofit policy organization, estimates that remediation costs taxpayers $3.7 billion a year, which includes $1.4 billion to teach basic skills to recent high school grads.
Many legislators and college officials contend that money for remediation is wasted, given that only 17 percent of students in remedial classes complete a bachelor's degree within eight years, contrasted to 58 percent of nonremedial students.
A nationwide push is on to produce students who are ready for college work. It comes at a crucial time for community colleges, the mules of U.S. higher education. They serve high numbers of minorities, the poor, parents and working adults seeking advancement. With their "open-door" policies, most admit anyone with a high school diploma. In some states, including Florida — with the exception of historically black Florida A&M University — four-year institutions are forbidden by law from teaching remedial courses. That task has been handed off to community colleges.
Aligning readiness standards
Powerful backers of the college-readiness movement include President Barack Obama, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged up to $110 million in investments, and education advocacy groups such as Achieve and the Southern Regional Education Board. Governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have issued a draft of common core state standards in English-language arts and math for grades K-12 that will align with college-readiness standards, at least on paper.
Initiatives such as the Obama administration's Race to the Top have forced state lawmakers and education officials to collaborate with local school districts on college-readiness standards in ways that were unheard of just two years ago. To apply for Race to the Top grant, for example, education officials must confer with leaders of local school districts, a new move for many.
All of this is good news. Something is better than nothing if the gap is to be closed between the K-12 and postsecondary sectors. A seemingly intractable standoff remains, however. In a tradition where public school teachers and college professors do not talk to one another about their shared mission and specific responsibilities, legislative mandates and data-driven models that measure student achievement, such as the Gates initiative, cannot make students magically ready to succeed in college.
Getting teachers to communicate
The time has come for public school teachers and college professors to bridge the divide, to start talking to one another about the reasoning and analytical skills, the content knowledge and the study habits students need to succeed in college.
I asked a wide range of people — college professors, college administrators, guidance counselors, public school teachers and school administrators — why professors and teachers do not talk, why they do not collaborate to reduce the need for remediation and what can be done to fix the problem. I got a mixed bag of observations.
In their 2002 article, "Teaching Collaboration between a University Professor and a Classroom Teacher," in the journal Teaching Education, Danling Fu, the professor, and Nancy Rankie Shelton, the classroom teacher, discuss what they learned when they successfully taught a language arts methods course together.
"One of the major reasons for our successful collaboration was our mutual respect," they write. "There tends to be a power imbalance when college professors and classroom teachers collaborate. With a doctoral degree and a broad knowledge of theory and research, college professors can silence and humiliate classroom teacher partners by appearing to know it all. Once this imbalance occurs, there cannot be true collaboration, which requires that both sides equally contribute to the work at every stage, and each person demonstrates his/her own expertise."
The views of Becky Sims, who teaches 10th-grade English at Lincoln Park Academy in Fort Pierce and who has not collaborated with a professor, typify those of her colleagues I spoke with. No one acknowledged feeling subservient to professors. The reason could be that none had collaborated with a professor.
"It's simply a matter of logistics and priorities," Sims said. "Teachers are a compliant group. Right now, the overwhelming push is toward raising standardized test scores. We eat, sleep, and breathe FCAT in public schools. Schools' grades, funding, reputations — our very survival — depend on those scores. Teachers are rehired or fired based on FCAT. We have neither the time, nor the resources nor the mandate to focus on how students will perform once they go to college."
Many community college professors and administrators said they had never considered discussing remediation with school teachers. In Gainesville, Susan Miller, head of the English department at Santa Fe College (formerly Santa Fe Community College), just recently began to talk with teachers.
"In the past, it's been pretty haphazard," she said. "A few years ago, our college prep coordinator and I met with a coterie of Gainesville High School faculty. They loved it. We loved it. Last fall, we had the North East Florida Educational Consortium meeting. After that event, I've met with Bradford County and P.K. Yonge secondary English teachers. So do we meet regularly? No. Would I be happy doing so? You bet. A better-prepared group of incoming college students will improve the lives of my faculty. And a happy faculty makes a happy me."
Understanding both sides
Like Miller, Martha Campbell, dean of the communications department at St. Petersburg College, has firsthand knowledge of the remediation crisis. Unlike Miller, she has a long history of actively trying to reduce the need for remediation. She began her career in 1974, teaching developmental English in a learning center at a community college in Dallas. Later, she founded a developmental learning support center at DeKalb Community College in Georgia.
From the beginning, she understood the need to break down the barriers between K-12 and higher education, and she is personally familiar with many of the problems school teachers face.
"Many high school teachers fear that talking with college teachers will result in a blame game," she said. "As the mother of two elementary school teachers in Florida, I know what their days are like and how many expectations they are expected to meet. Many teachers like them, particularly high school teachers, are unwilling to participate in conversations that they fear will result in blaming them for unprepared college students. Teachers at all levels understand the challenges and rewards of working with underprepared students. College faculty and high school teachers can avoid the blame game and instead focus on common ground. … All of us in the teaching profession have far more commonalities than differences."
Since 1987, when she came to SPC, Campbell has been teaching composition at all levels while serving as an administrator in the communications department. She has been part of what she refers to as "informal conversations" between high school teachers and community college faculty.
Turning those informal conversations into real collaborative action has been gradual. Campbell has forged relations with, among others, Jeffrey Cesta, director of the Early College Program and Dual Enrollment; Sharon Griggs, dean of mathematics at SPC; Bill Lawrence, director of the school district's program for Advanced Studies & Academic Excellence; and Rose Mack, supervisor of secondary mathematics for Pinellas schools. These relations are paying off.
"Currently, the school district curriculum supervisors are beginning collaboration with the college deans to define the curriculum that can be delivered to students in need of further remediation during their senior year of high school," Lawrence said. "Once that is developed, we can identify high schools with significant numbers of eligible students and counsel them to take advantage of the opportunity to take the college remedial course at no charge before entering SPC."
In another move, when Florida passed the College Readiness Initiative in 2008, the college and the schools began jointly administering the College Placement Test.
SPC is wise to begin working on college readiness with Pinellas schools. Although its remediation numbers are slowly falling, more should be done. It is time to ramp up face-to-face talks between professors, school teachers, guidance counselors and students.
Because of their strategic role in local higher education, community colleges must lead in establishing collaboration between the two systems. Top college administrators are in a unique position to persuade the two sides to work together. Principals and school superintendents do not have such power.
A collaboration that works
The best example of an equal partnership I have seen in Florida is in Seminole County. There, Seminole State College (formerly Seminole Community College) and the Seminole County School District are successfully collaborating to reduce the need for remediation.
Ten years ago, the college's math chairman, frustrated that more than 70 percent of public school students who enrolled at the college needed math remediation, met with district principals. He offered the principals a course the college would bring to their campuses. The college would provide the course content and mentoring, and the school teachers would teach the course. One school accepted.
A planning team of top college and school administrators began meeting once a month at 6 a.m. for breakfast at a Denny's restaurant, and the Mathematics College Readiness Initiative was born. Within a few years, the experimental school reduced its remediation rate from 70 percent to 10 percent. The team decided to replicate this model in all district high schools. Statistics from 2007-08 for the schools teaching the course showed a drop in the need for math remediation from 71 to 59 percent.
The course was introduced to the Florida House Higher Education Committee two years ago, and the committee wrote legislation requiring all Florida school districts to implement a similar course.
The Seminole model works because teachers, professors, guidance counselors and administrators stopped pointing fingers. They built trust and worked as equal partners.
Personal involvement is essential in the collaborative process. Joe Pickens, president of St. Johns River Community College, knows this, and he is familiar with Seminole's success. He represented District 21 in the Florida House and was a member of the House Education Appropriations Committee and the House Schools and Learning Council when the Seminole team presented the math readiness course before the Legislature. He also sponsored the College Readiness Initiative, HB 1908, which requires all Florida high schools to offer a course similar to Seminole's math course.
"We addressed for the first time remediation awareness statewide," Pickens said. "Certain targeted students take the college placement test in the 11th grade so that they will have an understanding before they got to college that they might be in need of remediation. Hopefully, they could address it during their senior year rather than waiting to find out when they get to college where they've got to pay tuition for classes they don't get any credit for."
Begin with middle school students
In 2008, when Pickens became president of SJRCC, which has a campus in Putnam, Clay and St. Johns counties, he found himself on the receiving end of the remediation crisis, with 60 to 65 percent of his new enrollees, most of them recent high school grads, needing remediation.
When talking with students back then, Pickens was surprised that most had no idea that they would need remediation. His initial focus was to prepare public school juniors and seniors for the CPT. He knew, however, that he had to go further by talking directly with younger students and their teachers. He wanted to get the students to think about college readiness before high school.
He asked local business owners and school officials to help sponsor the first annual College and Career Rally for eighth-graders in Putnam County. About 300 students attended.
"I wanted to create an early awareness," Pickens said. "That's why we're starting with eighth-graders. I felt that children need to understand that the minimum for graduating from high school, passing the FCAT and having a 2.0, are not necessarily enough to do college level work or to enter a career. I wanted to get young people onto the college campus, into this learning environment."
Pickens is blunt about what he sees as the major cause of the remediation crisis: "There's just not the communication there ought to be between the community colleges and the school systems they serve. I have not been as proactive as I should have been in my reach-out to the schools. I intend to get all three of my counties involved, and I want teachers and guidance counselors to understand and communicate to their students that there's a difference between getting out of high school and being ready for college."
Pickens' forthrightness and personal involvement are models for other educators in Florida who want to reduce remediation. He understands that because of their hierarchical status, community college officials and professors must lead in aligning the goals and standards of colleges and public schools.
Such an understanding, backed up by viable programs, is necessary for establishing trust-based collaborations. Otherwise, the blame game and the costly remediation circus will continue.
Bill Maxwell, who was a member of the Times editorial board before his retirement, still writes a Sunday column that appears in the Perspective section. Reporting for this commentary was supported by a grant from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.