Basic Skills Students - Do We Really Want Them to Succeed?

Richard Mahon,

The Basic Skills Committee this year envisions two breakouts sessions: the first, which took place at the Academic Senate Fall 2005 Plenary Session in Pasadena, focused on some of the attitudes that may stand in the way of meaningful progress toward meeting the needs of Basic Skills students. The second, planned for the Spring 2006 Plenary Session in San Francisco, will build on the discussion that took place in Pasadena to provide emerging best practices that can guide us throughout the state. What follows are some thoughts that framed the Pasadena discussion.

I have modest contact with Basic Skills students in my own classes. Every class I teach is aimed at our transfer population, and college composition is an advisory for all of my classes. But like many of us, I was attracted to a career in community college teaching to make a difference in the lives of my students, just as my elder colleagues made a difference in my life when I found myself in a California community college classroom 30+ years ago. Having participated in our two year ordeal leading to the recommendation to elevate English and math graduation requirements, I increasingly found myself thinking that what we require of our students "on the way out" matters much less than our success in coaxing the majority of them to acknowledge their deficits on the way in. Though I think our hearts are (mostly) in the right place, I can't help but question whether we are in a position (yet) to provide our students the help and support they need to meet requirements in English and math that we believe will better prepare them for the world that awaits them.

Across the Curriculum?

Pretty much without regard for our fields, we accept in principle that our students need "college level" skills in English and math to fulfill their potential in an increasingly dynamic society. On the other hand, how do we respond when we encounter students in our classes who lack the skills to do "college level" work? Do we devote our lectures to summarizing the content of the textbook, thus obviating students' need to read? Have we abandoned essays as too time-consuming to read and gotten our students off the writing hook? Do we teach our courses in economics or psychology or sociology as though our students have a college level command of basic quantitative relationships that underlie these disciplines as social sciences?

If we take seriously our own convictions about the importance of English and math, we should be encouraging-requiring, to the extent that we have the ability to do so through course outlines and department policy-ourselves to actually teach our classes in a fashion that indicates to students how serious we are when we claim that they need college level skills in English and math to progress and to realize their citizenship and transfer dreams.

Allocating Resources

One of the most oft repeated arguments against raising graduation requirements in English and math was the scarcity of local resources. The primary assumption would be that requiring thousands of students to take an additional English and math class would require colleges to increase the number of sections in those areas, with no additional funding to cover those expenses.

An observation made less often is that our current widespread practice of allowing students to begin to remediate on their own timetable-often at the end of what they mistakenly assume will be their two-year career. This means that many students enroll in classes for which they are yet not prepared, and in which they do not succeed.

Allocating resources means not only having the quantity of resources one needs, but using them in a reasonably efficient fashion.

It does not benefit students, or make intelligent use of our resources, if we encourage them-through the lack of honest advisories or prerequisites-into transfer level courses for which they are ill-prepared. The lack of a mandate that students begin developing their skills in computation and communication early means that the limited resources available to us in many cases will be squandered.

Our Mission-What is it? One detail that became apparent in our research on English and math remediation in CSU, UC, and other states' community college systems is the very common requirement that students begin remediation from the very beginning of their courses of study. We are hardly the only segment in California higher education with a mandate to bring students' skills to a college level: we are the only segment in California higher education that places most of the responsibility for beginning remedial sequences onto our students.

Some of you are thinking that the very comparison of our students to those in the CSU or UC shows where my thinking has gone wrong. Unlike those segments, we serve students with an enormous variety of goals: some hope to transfer, but many others seek a vocational certificate, while still others come in pursuit of lifelong learning. But we should not confuse the fact that our mission is truly so broad with the fact that many of our students who claim transfer as a goal do not realize that goal, and deficiencies in English and math-which in many cases will require multiple terms to remediate-are often at the heart of their inability to attain their goals.

There are many reasons why students put off dealing with their skill gaps in language and computation: fear of failing and the desire to get on to more appealing subjects are two common reasons.

The fact that students-especially transfer students-may wish to put off dealing with their skill deficiencies hardly legitimizes our complicity in a process that relegates students' very real deficiencies to their own private concerns. We should not use the broadness of our mission as an excuse for demanding less of our transfer populations than would be the case if they began in a four year system.

Local Control-for What?

A common obstacle we encounter in aiding our basic skills students is "local control." I categorize myself as a populist democrat. The idea of top-down autocratic control, with bureaucrats dictating to faculty and students, gives me shudders. But I also assume that bureaucrats shouldn't need to tell us what to do. If there's something our students need, my colleagues and I should be the first to observe the need and lay claim to the resources to fill it.

On the other hand, I also know that our colleges are slowmoving bureaucracies of their own. Our careers stretch over multiple decades, and we too easily forget that the initiatives we consider today are probably already too late to help our current student population. We also know that in our very real preoccupation with our limited resources (roughly two-thirds of what is provided for California's K-12 students, half of what is allocated for our CSU brethren and a quarter of what is allocated for our UC cousins) we often focus on preserving the status quo, lest things get worse before they get better.

For local control to have real, as opposed to "principled" value, we have to actually use it to apply a variety of remedies to our students' deficiencies, in order to learn what works best locally. We too often become insular and out of touch with both our students' needs and what might be done to meet them. Local control is only worth preserving if we put it to some good use on our students' behalfs. However, we should use any resource at our disposal, whether local or not, to remind faculty of our responsibility and our authority to make a difference in the lives of our basic skills students.

The Right to Fail?

On my campus it has become fashionable to say that students have "a right to fail." I think that's nonsense. First let me be clear that a student who could pass my class but doesn't attend, doesn't submit work, or submits sloppy work, doesn't need a "right" to fail. I will provide that failing grade independent of his or her "right" to it. But what many people mean by "right to fail" is that we should give students good advice (remediate now!) and let them fail when they neglect it.

Our CSU and UC partners do not recognize such a right, and neither should we. Were those under-prepared students spending their own money at a private institution, their success or failure might be of only intellectual concern. We, on the other hand, are supported by public money, to give our students, many of whom already have a second class education, one last chance at educational success and all that our society grants with it. If we fail them, they have nowhere to go. We don't give inexperienced drivers a license with no guidance on how to use it. We should not give our students across-the-board access to classes they are not likely to pass and then grant them more of what they have already had too much of, a "right to fail." It is not our students who fail in this case: it is we who have failed them.

What Can We Do?

We are governed by local trustee boards. We do have an apparently unbounded mission. We do have inadequate resources, and faculty who struggle to see students "succeed," sometimes at the cost of lowered standards in their courses. If we are going to see increasing numbers of our students truly succeed, we must address the structural limitations of our circumstances and find ways to get students to begin the process of remediation as early as humanly possible.

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