Monday, October 30, 2017

Acceleration to Nowhere? Only If That Was Always the Destination

There's an article over at Inside Higher Ed called "The Fast Lane to Nowhere" and it decries developmental education acceleration because "we have already promoted so many students at all levels who don’t know the material that we are drowning in a sea of bogus diplomas and degrees -- and far worse, the holders of those dishonorable documents are floundering."

Author John Almy makes many claims that I can't argue against. He says that "[w]e cannot continue to pass students and then hand them high school diplomas that they cannot read."


He says, "We are hurting students by not teaching them the material before we pass them, and that process begins in kindergarten and continues through college."


But he makes a logical jump from those valid points to an angry tirade against acceleration without connecting the dots.

Let's all jump to conclusions!

In part, Almy writes, "
We put remedial students who are incapable of surviving remedial classes into transfer-level classes alongside students who are supposedly prepared, and that, along with a little extra tutoring, will somehow provide the lower-level students with the desire and abilities to quickly acquire all the skills they have failed to gain in the first 12 years of their educations. Baloney!"

Except it isn't "baloney." We have the data to back it up. Acceleration (often by shortening the developmental course sequence) and co-requisite enrollment (where developmental students are placed in credit-bearing courses at the same time they take their "remedial" class) are sweeping the nation and making plenty of people nervous because we're disrupting the traditional gatekeeping mechanism of blocking student access to "real" college.

I take a lot of issue with Almy's claims. First of all, he himself admits that these students "failed to gain [the necessary skills] in the first 12 years of their educations." So one more semester is the magic bullet? They had 144 months to learn these things, but four more should do it?

This is especially troubling when so many "remedial" classes follow curricular models that look a lot more like high school, or middle school, or even elementary school than they do college. Students doing endless grammar drills or being forced to write a perfect sentence before they are given the freedom to express their ideas in robust and complete essays is a surefire way to kill any interest in the subject. Turn writing into an exercise in proving one's academic identity rather than a way to express one's ideas, and you're going to send a whole lot of first-generation, low-income, and minority students running for the door feeling like they don't belong. 

That's what we lose when we disrupt the traditional model of developmental education. We lose the chance to protect our precious definitions of what college writers should sound like (and by extension, often what they should look like, dress like, and spend money like).

This isn't to say that we should embrace all efforts at developmental education reform without question. Accelerated models deserve scrutiny, and they are not all created equal. This article from Alexandros Goudas points out that some attempts to create a co-requisite ostensibly modeled off of the very successful ALP model from Baltimore Community College have actually become nothing more than a cost-saving measure that slaps a one-credit-hour lab component to traditional credit-bearing English 101 with no curriculum support that actually follows the model.

I personally think that many conversations surrounding developmental writing reform have focused too much on the structure and not enough on the curriculum. Acceleration works only when both components are taken into account. Students don't magically learn the same material at a faster rate just because you deliver it quicker (though many students who are capable of doing the work but who have life issues that prevent them from successfully completing multiple semesters of developmental coursework might still benefit). The true benefit comes from a curricular model that puts belief in students' abilities to succeed at the forefront of course design. If we get rid of the grammar drills and insultingly low hurdles and instead place high standards and the means to reach them in our students' paths, we see success. It is really that simple . . . and that hard. 

The challenging part of developmental education reform is that it means not just reforming our classrooms and our curriculum, but reforming ourselves. We have fallen into tired stereotypes about developmental writers for decades, and Almy is going through them like a greatest hits record. His claim that students haven't learned any skills in twelve years of school is a ridiculous one. I have never had a student come into my developmental writing classroom without a rich rhetorical skillset. I have never had a student come into my classroom without complex experiences of rhetorical dexterity. They are not blank slates arriving to us to learn kindergarten-level sentence structure. Just because they do not write the way we want them to write doesn't mean they can't write.

I have been teaching remedial writing classes for a decade, and I have had hundreds of students enter my classroom. Nothing in my experience matches Almy's description of developmental students as "those who don’t want to or can’t learn" and who are "draining our valuable resources." I can count on one hand the number of students I have met who seem truly incapable of meeting the demands of a rigorous, complex writing curriculum. 

Furthermore, Almy pleas for us to "[t]each those of us who have the desire -- really teach us -- what our instructors neglected to teach us the first time. And above all, make us learn or leave. Make us accountable. Make us earn our way." 

That is exactly what I do! The fact that I do it in an accelerated format doesn't make it any less rigorous. In fact, my accelerated classroom is leaps and bounds more challenging than the remedial course profile I was teaching from before our redesign. My students are absolutely, 100% held accountable. They do "learn or leave," though I try very hard to make them learn rather than leave. I don't understand why Almy thinks that an accelerated model is somehow a guaranteed A. It isn't.

It is ridiculous when he goes on to suggest that acceleration is somehow at odds with the goal of high standards and accountability, that I am somehow not letting students "
feel pride in what [they] have accomplished" and am instead bestowing upon them "arrogance in how [they] circumvented the system."

The only "system" they are "circumventing" is one designed to make them take classes with no college credit while they eat through their financial aid allotment, dragging out their "two-year" degree for years and years while we continue to steep them in current traditional rhetoric practices that didn't work in the first place and then pat our backs about our "rigor" when they give up.

Then he calls upon remedial education and its lengthy sequence as a way to build grit. And we all know how I feel about that. 

It's a bad system, one rooted in systemic discrimination against minorities and anyone whose discourse identities don't align with our own sense of superiority. If it makes us uncomfortable to dismantle it (or, really, just disrupt it a little), then that says much more about us than it does about the students who have become collateral damage in a historical battle over our attempts to shore up our academic boundaries. 

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