Rethinking Remedial Education and the Academic-Vocational Divide, Part I

I apologize for missing the month of February. I was trying to write something on Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, but just couldn’t find the time to do it. Murray is up to his old tricks of presenting a blizzard of statistical tables blended with faulty reasoning to blame people at the lower ranks of the socioeconomic order for their hardships. As it turned out, David Frum, the conservative pundit, surprisingly wrote an excoriating four-part review of the book in The Daily Beast – a much better job than I would have had the time to do. If the Murray book crossed your radar screen, you might want to read what Frum has to say about it.

This post and the next, I’m presenting the text of a speech I gave at the 2011 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and in slightly different form was just published in the journal Mind, Culture, and Activity. In it, I try to pull together work I’ve done over the years on remedial education in writing, reading, and mathematics at the college level and on vocational education (these days called Career and Technical Education), and the separation of the vocational from the academic course of study. This speech is a reflection on the limitations of remedial and vocational education, as typically practiced, and on what needs to be done to improve them.

I’ll post Part II in a few weeks.

What you see depends on where you sit, and for how long. You enter the classroom from the rear, wanting to be discrete on your first visit, and slip into the desk closest to the door. A few students notice you, but most are walking around or leaning over to the person next to them talking. Except for one woman, the class is all men, 20s and 30s, a few White guys, the rest Black and Latino. Hoodies, baggy pants, loud profanity. The teacher is in front at a cloudy overhead projector. Three men are around him – each seems bigger than the next – and they are arguing.

The room is old and dingy, no windows, bare except for the irregular rows of desks, the table with the projector, a cart holding pipes and metal bars, and in the corner a worn flag from the American Welding Society. You’re trying to take it all in when a sullen guy in an oversized T-shirt, a bandana around his head, walks over to you and asks, “What are you doin’ here?”

This is a speech about perception and ability, about the way beliefs about cognition blend with social characteristics – class, race, gender – to create both instructional responses and institutional structures that limit human development for people already behind the economic eight ball.

The classroom is attached to a large welding shop in a community college vocational program. Two days a week, the welding instructor teaches basic mathematics to his novice welders because some of them checked out of school long ago and never learned, or learned poorly, how to divide decimal fractions and calculate volume. And some knew it but have been away from it in the military or in a job that folded. Most people who make policy that affects students like these – and a fair number whose research involves them – haven’t spent time in such classrooms. And, with few exceptions, those who do aren’t there for long.

But if you stay… and come back… and come back again, you’ll notice that on some days the baggy jeans and oversized tees are traded off for work shirts with company logos on the back. As you move around the room, you’ll hear that amid the f-bombs, students are explaining to each other how to solve a problem or challenging someone else’s explanation. The men walking over to other men’s desks are typically bringing their open notebooks with them. The big to-do that can flair up around the projector – lots of pointing and trash talk – usually involves a disagreement among students that they take right up to the instructor, the shadows of their fingers flitting across the diagrams on the overhead screen.

And that guy who wanted to know what you’re doing here? Well, it’s a legitimate question, isn’t it? And everything depends on how you answer it. When it was posed to me, I said I was here to study programs like this one because we need to know more about them to convince our politicians that we need more of them. The man’s features softened, and we moved out into the hallway. “We need programs like this,” he said. “People like us.” “It’s the teacher that really makes a difference,” he continued. “He treats us like we’re people.”

I later found out more about this man – let’s call him Ray. Ray has been in the two-year program for a year, is doing well, and, in fact, just got a job. The boss sent the instructor an email praising Ray, adding that he’d hire anyone else that good. The instructor then told me Ray’s story. During his first few weeks in the program, he tried to cheat on a test of welding terms by erasing the name on a paper being handed toward the front and writing his name quickly across the top. This was so pathetic a move that several students called him on it – and, besides, the instructor could clearly see the traces of Ray’s handiwork. Ready to throw Ray out of the program, the instructor called him into his office the next day, angry at both the stupidity and insult of Ray’s stunt. Ray was mortified and begged to be given another chance. Ambivalent, uncertain, the instructor relented. “You just don’t know,” he said to me. “You have to be open in a program like this, give guys a chance to leave the streets behind.” For the instructor, the program was a buffer zone. Some people will change. Some won’t. It’s hard to know in advance. But Ray seems to have found his way.

For some time now, I have been studying cognition, language, and learning in low-status places – working-class schools, blue-collar job sites, remedial classrooms – places not privileged by society or, frequently, by the institutions in which they are located. Places like the basic math course and the welding program that houses it. I’m sure my interest in such places begins with my own history. My uncles were employed in the east coast smokestack industries – railroad, automotive – and my mother was a waitress all her working life. That work kept us afloat, and seemed powerful, and I loved watching it. As for school, I was a somnambulant student – except when the nuns wacked me – and once in high school, I spent two years going nowhere along a non-academic track. A senior English teacher turned my life around – that is a story for another time – and after struggling through a probationary first year of college, I began to find my way. So, all in all, I know the remedial side of the street pretty well.

I’m going to fast-forward through my undergraduate English major (that English teacher had turned me on to literature, and, besides,he was an English major) and zoom across a subsequent year of a doctoral program in English – which turned out to be too removed from the work of the world for me. Looking to ground myself and make a living, I found the Teacher Corps, a War on Poverty program that placed prospective teachers in low-income schools. That was my introduction to teaching and education, and after Teacher Corps I would go on to work for eight more years in a community college, in adult school, and in a range of programs for special populations: traffic cops and parole aids to returning Vietnam veterans.

Let me tell you a little about the Veterans Program, for I see now how much it shaped my subsequent teaching and development of curriculum – and eventually research on remediation. The twelve-week program was developed by UCLA Extension and funded through the G.I. Bill – and it was housed in an old building in downtown Los Angeles, far away from UCLA itself. The purpose of the program was to prepare the vets for some level of post-secondary education. They took math, reading, speech, and writing courses, and an introductory course in psychology that gave them transfer credit. This was my first job out of Teacher Corps where I had taught language arts to children; now I was facing adults my age or older, and I wasn’t sure what to do. But God looks out for drunks and fools, and I began to see that if this really was a preparatory program, then I could simulate for the vets the kind of intellectual tasks and writing assignments they would face in college. So, for example, I knew from my experience that they would have to systematically compare events or processes or texts. So I started them off with a few lines on human solidarity from John Donne and from the Caribbean poet and statesman Aimé Césaire, and over a few weeks we worked our way up to an astronomy textbook account of the Big Bang and an Australian aboriginal myth about the origins of the cosmos. We would talk about these passages, look up words, puzzle together over what they meant and then list as precisely as we could similarities and differences in the content, in language, and who we imagined the audience for each to be. Then as best as they could, the veterans wrote out what they had discovered, sometimes in class as I went desk to desk, sometimes with the tutors the program hired – and when they were available, I’d bring one of the tutors into my classroom. Then the vets would revise their papers at home and come back for another round.

After all this work in special programs, I would go on to run the Educational Opportunity Program Tutorial Center at UCLA, a summer bridge program, and the Freshman Composition Program. Again, I’ll fast-forward here and only say that I and my colleagues in the Tutorial Center further developed the curriculum I started in the Veterans Program and as well developed another model for remediation in which we linked writing courses to introductory courses in political science, history, and psychology. This approach is in the air again today, used in college “learning communities” and in “contextualized learning” – for example, the way that welding teacher in the opening vignette teaches basic math.

In hindsight I realize how important it was that my first encounter with college remediation happened in the Veterans Program. It was both geographically and symbolically a far distance from UCLA. If we had been within the university’s orbit, the prescribed curriculum for a remedial writing course would have been a grammar and mechanics workbook with some short readings, for there is a standard model for the college remedial writing course that’s been with us since the 1930s, was in place at UCLA in the late 1970s, and is quite present today. Let me sketch it out for you.


Virtually all state and community colleges and the majority of universities offer some form of remedial writing instruction. In the university, there is typically one remedial course; in the community college, three or four, taken in sequence.

Though there is variation – and some new developments that I’ll discuss later – the standard remedial writing curriculum, especially as you move down the remedial ladder to the most basic course, includes a print or online workbook with exercises on grammar and mechanics (“Circle the correct pronoun in this sentence: their orthey’re” “Change the tense of the following verbs from present to past”). The workbook might also contain some short general-interest readings. The highest-level remedial course might have a separate reader arranged thematically (sections on work, school, family, coming of age) or perhaps a composition textbook, often with readings. Depending on the level, there will usually be some writing assignments, ranging from, at the lowest level, sentences and single paragraphs up to short papers (often the five-paragraph essay) on a topic related to one’s personal experience or a current social issue. Most remedial writing textbooks emerge from and reinforce this standard model.

The first thing that probably strikes you about this curriculum is how familiar it is. The second thing, especially with the more basic courses, is how little it feels like college. A lot of students sense that too.

I want to explore with you the curricular, structural, social class, and symbolic dimensions of the standard remedial writing course, and along the way touch on remedial mathematics as well.

There are longstanding – and seemingly reasonable – assumptions about language and learning that underlie this approach to writing instruction. And I heard them all once I moved to the Tutorial Center at UCLA and became acquainted with both the remedial textbook market and remedial programs at four-and-two year colleges up and down California.

Here in a nutshell is the rationale for the curriculum and for the lockstep sequence of courses. To teach a complex skill, especially if someone is having difficulty with it, you break the skill down into its constituent parts and have novices practice and practice them. In writing, fundamentals would be the rules of grammar and mechanics as represented in those workbook exercises. In addition to breaking down, you want to keep a tight focus on the task – writing – and remove potentially confounding variables, like reading skill. So if readings are used, they are usually kept simple and at a minimum. This parsing out of reading from writing is structurally reinforced in many institutions with reading and writing each having its own department. Another potentially confounding variable you want to control for is complexity of topic: what students write about if writing beyond the sentence is involved. The standard remedial playbook for decades and decades includes topics involving one’s personal experience (“Write about an event that changed your life”) or a broad social issue (“Why should we vote?”). Reinforcing these assumptions about writing and learning is an assumption about motivation. I would hear often that remedial writing students could be overwhelmed – which is true – and that therefore we need to keep assignments within a comfort zone and give students the experience of succeeding.

You’ve got a pretty tight web of assumptions here, internally coherent, the common sense of remediation. Similar assumptions drive the standard approach to remediation in reading and mathematics.

But common sense wasn’t always common; it begins somewhere. A lot of you will recognize this atomistic skills orientation to learning as the simplified behaviorism of early academic psychology – E.L. Thorndike and company. The remedial English class so familiar to us will take shape during the early Twentieth Century when this approach to the study of language is in ascendance, an approach that researches language by reducing it to its discrete elements and defines growth as the accretion of these elements. The way to remedy error is to do studies that precisely determine common errors (for example, subject-verb agreement), and then develop exercises to build “habit strength” in correct agreement. The workbook and “practice pad”, new to the market at this time, provided the vehicle for such practice. And you will find exercises in the workbooks of the 1920s that are similar to the ones in workbooks and on computer screens today.

The problem is that we have over half-a-century’s worth of work in linguistics, rhetorical and writing studies, cognitive and cultural psychology, and education that undercut this approach and the aforementioned assumptions that support it. Language growth is much more complex – and what I’m going to say applies equally to native and non-native speakers of English. Isolated workbook or on-line exercises don’t necessarily transfer to one’s writing. Error in writing is not static; errors corrected in basic narrative can reemerge in more complex exposition. To remove or reduce reading and to assign primarily personal or general opinion assignments does not prepare one to write for most of the other courses in the academic or vocational curriculum, courses most students are in at the same time they are taking remedial writing. And as for the claim that students’ academic identity and motivation will benefit from unchallenging assignments – that’s both unsubstantiated and patronizing. Finally, on the structural level, that sequence of courses has proven to be more of a barrier than an aid to college success; a striking number of students – especially those placing in the more basic courses – never make it through the series to freshman English.

Complementing these reductive assumptions about learning is a second foundational influence on remediation, and when I was running the Tutoring Center and developing preparatory programs, I heard it frequently from administrators and faculty, English to biology, university to community college. Mixed with the language of skills there was a language that sounded both medical and psychometric. Students in remedial classes had “handicaps”, “disabilities”, “defects”, and “deficits” that had to be targeted and treated – almost as though their writing or math problems were organic and could be diagnosed and surgically removed. This vocabulary fits nicely with the above-mentioned atomistic approach to language and language growth.

I also heard a more generalized blend of the organic and psychometric, essentially that students were in remedial courses because they were limited cognitively. They can’t think clearly or logically, or have trouble with abstraction, or just aren’t that smart. No surprise that a common name for the remedial writing course was Bonehead English. I still hear the term today.

Partly to counter claims that these students weren’t intelligent and partly to generate theoretical explanations for their problems with writing, some people in writing and literary studies drew from contemporary theories about cognitive development and brain function and applied those theories to remedial writers. Perhaps flawed writing is caused by differences in cognitive style, or in brain activity, or from being arrested at the Piagetian stage of Concrete Operations, or from growing up in a subculture that is oral more than literate. This is a kinder, gentler set of explanations than saying students are stupid, but it still posits fundamental differences in brain function and language use. Some of the vocabulary has changed, but remedial discourse is still full of loose talk about “learning styles” as well as about “handicaps” and “disabilities.” This brew of organic and psychometric discourse locates all causality within the individual and reduces and reifies problems with reading, writing, or mathematics.

As best as I can tell, this perspective on remediation has its origins in the first few decades of the twentieth century as medical doctors begin to work with children who today we would recognize as having a learning disability. But without knowledge of learning disabilities, the physicians analogized from the symptoms of adult stroke victims to explain the children’s difficulties with language; somehow the otherwise healthy children were born with the processing liabilities that in adults comes from cerebral trauma. And as physicians began to pose more functional rather than trauma-based explanations and treatments for the children’s difficulties, their language remained medical. One influential expert wrote of the “handicap” of these “physiological deviates.”

As often happens with labels and categories, the remedial designation grew to include a wider and wider range of students, virtually anyone having difficulty in school, from those with poor vision or inadequate vocabulary to those who were just shy. Yet the medical cast remained. Here is a passage from a 1930 textbook on written examinations:

…teaching bears a resemblance to the practice of medicine. Like a successful physician, the good teacher must be something of a diagnostician. The physician by means of general examinations singles out individuals whose physical defects require more thorough testing. He critically scrutinizes the special cases until he recognizes the specific troubles. After a careful diagnosis he is able to prescribe intelligently the best remedial or corrective measures.

It is telling that one of the nicknames during the 1930s for college-level remedial classes was “sick sections.” In the 1940s it was “hospital sections.” And, as I mentioned, there is the more recent appellation of “Bonehead English”, not pathologic, perhaps, but calcified, organic, thick, and dense.

What happens to reading, writing, and mathematics in such an environment? They become narrow, mechanical pursuits, stripped of fuller meaning. Students are tested, placed in courses, strive to fulfill requirements, are tested again, jump through another hoop. There’s no denying that many students over the years have learned valuable things in these courses because of dedicated and inspiring teachers, but when you look at the broad picture – or if you simply spend time in the typical class and talk to students – you see how much effort is spent with such limited gains. Students will define “good writing” as not making grammatical mistakes. To be proficient in mathematics you have to “memorize the rules.” Grammar and algorithmic procedure are crucially important, but to define literacy and numeracy that way is like defining basketball as dribbling. Even introductory general education courses in political science, or biology, or astronomy are not taught in this fashion. A real grasp of literacy and numeracy doesn’t seem to be the goal.

Consider as well the image of the person that is created by the medical-psychometric discourse and the skills and drills approach to instruction. It is an image tinted with abnormality and stigma and conveys a pretty undynamic and unnuanced mental life. The image is also marked by social class and race. To be sure, a number of students from middle-class and well-to-do families are in remedial classes. When I was doing the work, I taught more than a few of them. But for all the reasons we know – from inadequate schooling to family disruptions stemming from housing, employment, health, or immigration status – low-income students are over-represented in remedial classes, and, in many locations, these students are largely people of color. This is where that remedial language of handicaps and differences has further insidious ramifications, for we have a societal tendency to meld poor academic performance with cognitive generalizations about class and race. Witness The Bell Curve.

Further issues of status and bias – both structural and symbolic – run throughout the remedial system. There is a status hierarchy of disciplines in higher education; not all courses are created equal – and the remedial course is in the lower depths. This inferior position is underscored by the fact that the courses for the most part do not carry credit, and credit is the institutional signifier of legitimacy. (Lack of credit also has economic consequences for students in terms of persistence, degree completion, and possible transfer.)

And, of course, there is not only a status hierarchy among disciplines but among post-secondary institutions as well, from elite research universities to the central-city community college. Though universities have had some type of remedial or preparatory course or program in their curriculum since the mid-nineteenth century, they have always been a source of vexation – and, at times, something akin to moral panic. We are seeing attempts in at least a dozen states now to move remedial courses from the college and university to the community colleges. Conversely, the open-access community college for much of its history has provided remedial or preparatory work as part of its mission, though the demand has increased as the nation urges more people into post-secondary education, as more people seek some small advantage in an unstable economy, and as state legislators and university administrators push remediation down the status ladder. And these open access colleges where the low-income populate are the least resourced of our institution of higher learning—and in many states, their budgets are being cut.

The people who teach the courses at the university or college level are almost always graduate students or adjuncts, and adjuncts are widely used at the community college level as well. These people have the least power among faculty. And because of the constraints on their role and time – and the fact that many adjuncts are zooming to two and three colleges to make a living – they typically don’t have the time or training to rethink the remedial curriculum. (Some do, but it is a daunting task.) Thus those remedial textbook publishers who replicate the curriculum are, in part, responding to the market.

Though some who teach remedial classes in the words of one community college department chair, “resent the students and feel they [the instructors] deserve better,” it’s been my experience that many of those who teach the courses put considerable effort into doing right by their students, and some achieve impressive results. But even if they resist it, they do that work within the remedial superstructure.

These interlayered dimensions of educational remediation – the curricular and ideological, the structural, and the symbolic – are a formidable barrier to change. Reformers might alter something structural, but the assumptions beneath the curriculum remain the same. Or instructors might create new curricula, but can’t simultaneously work on the structural level. Comprehensive change begins to feel remote.

But, in fact, remedial education has worked for some students, powerfully so. And there is a long history – unfortunately not well-known in larger policy circles – of teachers working against the grain and developing educationally rich curricula and programs. Furthermore, we are at a propitious time when public and philanthropic resources are focused on remedial education, and a lot of smart people are experimenting with new curricula, with on-line learning, and with altering those restrictive course sequences. The crucial, the absolutely foundational questions facing us are: How will we define the students in remedial education? And what kind of education will we envision for them?

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Mike Rose

The son of Italian immigrants, Mike Rose was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and raised in Los Angeles, California. He is a graduate of Loyola University (B.A.), the University of Southern California (M.S.), and the University of California, Los Angeles (M.A. and Ph.D.). Over the last forty years, he has taught...