I teach community college developmental writing, or basic English, or remedial writing, depending on where you are or who you ask.
I teach students who--for a myriad of reasons--have tested as unprepared for college-level writing. Many of my students are traditional college-aged students graduating from the urban public schools in the city my school is located. Some are from nearby suburban schools. A lot of my students are non-traditional college students returning after being out of school for several years (maybe even a few decades). A lot of my students are Veterans. A lot of my students are parents, full-time employees, or both. Some of my students (but probably not as many as you think) are lacking several of the basic life skills that make college success likely. All of my students have goals that require them to get past me and my class, which often becomes a symbolic stumbling block to those goals. That symbolic stumbling block can become a literal one for many students who won't pass the first time they take a developmental class and the many of those who won't re-enroll to try again.
Obviously, developmental classes are not the place students are hoping to end up. They are often disappointed when test scores put them in my classes. Those scores can add months or even years to the start of their dreams.
They're also not the place that we as educators want to see them. We want students to reach their goals, and we want all of the students coming into college to be prepared for college-credit-bearing classes, but that's simply not the reality we live in.
That's why I am bristling a little at comments like the one at the end of this article. This article shows that 80% of the public high school graduates who attend CUNY need at least one remedial class. Josh Thomases, deputy academic chief at the Department of Education is quoted saying, "I don't want anyone to go to remediation."
Of course, I get his sentiment. My primary focus as an educator is my students' success, and being able to go straight into college-level classes gets them closer to their goals. In a perfect world, there wouldn't be a need for my job.
But I don't live in that world, so I very much do want students to go to remediation because--for many students--that's their chance to get the skills they need, succeed in college, and reach their goals.
Don't get me wrong. I am not naive. I know that the success rates for developmental classes are often discouraging. I know that many of my students will leave college long before they reach the goals they've set for themselves, and I know that a developmental class or two is not going to magically repair all of the complicated challenges that my students face.
But I also know that amazing things happen in developmental classrooms. Students find out--sometimes for the very first time--that they like learning. Some of my students tell me that writing for my class is the first time they've ever been proud of their own work. I watch students go from not having any confidence in their abilities to believing that they can succeed. I read amazing essays with intelligent, thoughtful connections that show me glimpses of the strong people behind them. Some of these people may have been able to find that out without a developmental class, but many of them would not have.
At some point, we could say that we don't want students in classes at all. Like the arguments for "hacking" your education suggest, all the information we need is available online anyway. In a perfect world, all students would have the technology, critical thinking skills, and social connections to craft their own education without institutional intervention. But we don't live in that world, either. We live in a world where many students (at all levels of education) need those support systems. As long as the need for developmental education exists, I hope that we can focus less on what it means our students (or their previous educators) haven't done in the past and more on what it does do, or (more importantly) on what our students do with it.
Photo: Michael W. May