Solving Education’s $1.5 Billion Problem

By Deborah Howard
There’s a $1.5 billion problem in public education throughout the country.
Recently, Education Reform Now released a new study about the cost of remedial education at the college level. The study reports that families and students spend more than $1.5 billion on remedial courses when they arrive at college – just to prepare for their two- and four-year degree programs.
There have been many stories over the years that decry the fact that too many low-income and minority students graduate from high school underprepared for college. They go on to attend college where they spend lots of money on remediation. Then, far too few graduate. It’s an all-too-familiar story to those of us who work with students who live in challenging circumstances.
But this study is different.
According to the report: “Hundreds of thousands of American families across all income levels are spending billions each year on extra college costs because our high schools are graduating too many students unprepared for college. Remedial education has been severely downplayed because it incorrectly suggests the need for remediation is a phenomenon solely seen among students from low-income families and within community colleges.”
But the remediation problem is more expansive: it reaches across economic strata. It impacts students from lower-, middle-, upper-middle and high-income families. It could affect all students.
And that’s why I think this study is a potential game-changer. When a problem has the potential to affect all students, regardless of economic status, there’s a better likelihood that it will be addressed.

Aligning Expectations

To solve this $1.5 billion problem, we have to consider the root cause. Students aren’t showing up to college unprepared because of a lack of skills or quality teaching. Instead, their college readiness is based on mismatched expectations between the high school and college levels.
Think about an English 101 college course. What do students need to know? If you talk to any college English professor, you’ll hear similar responses: to pass English 101, students must be able to write well. They must write often. They must write complete sentences and full paragraphs. They are required to compose complete papers. They must analyze and argue, draw conclusions and defend their positions.
College students must be able to write. Not once a quarter. Not once per unit. Not even once per week. First-year college students must be able to write constantly.
Now consider where high school English courses place their emphasis: literature. Don’t get me wrong. With degrees in English and Communication and a love for writing and grammar, I understand the importance of literature. Reading and understanding classic novels, poetry and prose is critical to understanding art, society, history and human nature. Through literature, we come to understand the art of the written word. But while understanding the art and mastering the craft are related, the skill sets are very different.
To help fully prepare students for their postsecondary educational experiences, we need to give educators and leaders in high school and college the space for open, honest dialogue about expectations and closing the readiness gap.
This seemingly simple solution has been very helpful in Early College High Schools throughout the country. At these schools, 9th and 10th grade students are enrolling in and passing the same college English courses that Education Reform Now’s study reports high school graduates are underprepared to complete. Early College students aren’t in the top 2% of their high school classes and they haven’t completed AP courses. On the contrary, many ECHS students were performing below grade level when they entered high school.
But in Early College High Schools, high school teachers, college professors and students sit down to talk about learning targets at both levels. They are clear about the expectations students need to meet. They fine tune the curriculum so students are fully prepared not only to read and analyze literature but also able to clearly write about, discuss and defend their viewpoints.
It’s just that simple. Who knew a $1.5 billion problem could be solved with simple communication?
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Deborah Howard is the Chief Operating Officer at EDWorks, a KnowledgeWorks subsidiary focused on Early College High Schools. Follow her on Twitter, @DeborahHowardd.

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1 Comment


I completely agree on the English 101 example. As a college instructor who teaches that course, there are so many other pragmatic skills students need (audience awareness, sound argumentation, rebuttals to counter-arguments, ability to find and evaluate credible scholarly sources, etc.) to be successful writing at the college level. I actually just presented on this topic at a conference, and heard some other presentations that also touched on this issue. The more consistent, direct, purposeful, and streamlined we can be with our expectations and instruction (from high school through college) about these foundational skills, the more successful our students will be, and the more efficient our education system will become.

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