Dave introduced himself to my college writing class: he had a new baby, a full-time job and plenty of confidence. Rose asked for patience: she couldn’t afford the textbook and her student financial aid wouldn’t arrive for a couple of weeks. She was also living in a homeless shelter. Ann arrived with cheerful enthusiasm and what she told me was a sixth grade reading level. Louis was working full-time and needed to get a degree to continue to be employable in the field he had worked in for decades. Henry was still wearing an ankle bracelet as a condition of parole, and had excellent writing skills, but huge challenges in family situation and housing. Bonita was returning to college after 22 years, urged on by her now-college-graduate children.
I’ve changed the names to protect their privacy, but the stories are real. Students with similar stories will fill this fall’s classroom. Education is a joint enterprise, with students and their schools both bringing part of what’s needed for success. Among the essentials that colleges need to offer are high expectations, honest grading, and remedial help.
First, high expectations point the way to success. Pygmalion in the Classroom, first published in 1968, demonstrated the power of high expectations. At the beginning of a school year, elementary teachers were told that tests showed specific students in their classroom would have “dramatic intellectual growth” in that year. In fact, the names were randomly chosen. After a year, the chosen students showed accelerated progress. The only difference between chosen and non-chosen students was teacher expectation.
High expectations alone are not enough to guarantee student success. They are, however, a powerful support for students who want to achieve.
Second, we owe students honest grading. In the long run, no one benefits by inflated grades for substandard work. Not the college, whose transcripts and degrees will mean less and less. Not the future employer, who should be able to expect certain skills from college graduates. And most of all, not the student, who is deceived by grade inflation into thinking that s/he has learned what s/he needs to succeed.
Honest grading is only the beginning. Grading needs begin early in the semester and signal the need to improve. Then students need the opportunity and support to re-do work, to do more work and to finally demonstrate mastery of the material.
That means meeting students where they are and working with them to improve their skills and mastery of the coursework. That means building in re-writes and re-testing to give the opportunity for growth and success. That means assigning a final grade that reflects what the student has achieved by the end of the semester, not simply a mathematical average of all the grades throughout the term.
Third, many students need remedial help. If a student like Ann graduates from high school with only a sixth grade reading level, she needs remedial help. She is not ready for college. Taking her money for college courses is fraud.
Since the educational system has failed her up to this point, the college needs to step up and offer an honest assessment and a realistic road forward. As a nation, we offer free education through high school. When students put in twelve years, but don’t get the education, remedial help should be free to the student. That means funding remedial education for adults. Until then, colleges could at least stop taking student’s money (including money from Pell grants or loans) to pay for classes they can’t possibly pass.