Catching Up With Remedial Courses In College

There's a lot of talk about students struggling in K through 12 classrooms. But once they get to college, many students fall even further behind. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sarah Gonzalez, NPR's StateImpact Florida reporter, about the high number of college students enrolling in remedial classes.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, how long have parents been saying just say no to cigarettes, alcohol and especially illegal drugs? So now that states have legalized marijuana, what kinds of conversations should they have? We'll talk more about that in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to have another in our series of conversations about education. Many of you may remember that as part of our Twitter Education Forum this fall we talked about issues in K through 12 education. It turns out that nearly one in two incoming community college students had to take remedial math courses just to get caught up to the regular curriculum. That according to a 2010 study by Columbia University.

These courses can also cost a lot of money and delay graduation. That's something StateImpact Florida reporter Sarah Gonzalez found locally while investigating a series called "13th Grade: How Florida's Schools are Failing to Prepare Students for College." We wanted to hear more about this so we've called Sarah Gonzalez.

Sarah, you were part of our Twitter Education Forum in the fall so it's good to talk with you again.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Yes. It's good to talk to you again too.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, just a staggering number of students, according to a number of national studies, have found that incoming college students are having to take remedial courses. What did you find in Florida?

GONZALEZ: We teamed up with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and we found that more than half of the students who took the college placement test right after graduating from a Florida high school had to take at least one remedial class when they got to college in reading, writing or math.

Now, more than 125,000 Florida college students had to take remedial math alone and of those about 25,000 were students who had just graduated from a Florida high school.

MARTIN: The percentage of kids who need remedial courses is so large you have to figure it's a pretty wide-ranging group. But did you notice any trends among the students who are taking these remedial classes, who have to take these classes?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well, when you look at community colleges the demographics are generally high minority, low income, especially in Florida. And so when you look at the remedial education population they tend to be heavily representing students of color, low-income students. And these are the students that are having to play catch-up when they graduate from high school.

MARTIN: You know, but part of the problem here then becomes that they have to pay to learn things they should have already learned for free in public school.

GONZALEZ: Exactly. Yeah. And these classes where students are learning how to add and subtract and write a paragraph, they cost the same tuition as any other class at a community college.

MARTIN: Let's hear from Shakira Lockett. She is a recent graduate of Miami-Dade County public schools and we actually spoke to her as well as part of our Twitter Education Forum. And she's part of your news story. This is what she said.

SHAKIRA LOCKETT: I was able to actually get the proper teaching in the schools but I think it was left up to me also to go home and study math and everything. I just hated it so much that I didn't want to be bothered with it if I didn't have to, which was in school only. So I would do my homework and then that's it. I wouldn't actually study and sit down. Maybe if had sit down and studied more and actually got to, you know, tutoring and everything with the math maybe I would have been better with the math.

MARTIN: You know, Sarah, one of the other things that you found out in your reporting, you interviewed a teacher who said it's actually become culturally acceptable to say I don't like math, I can't do math. Why might that be?

GONZALEZ: Right. So David Rock, who is a professor of math education at the University of Mississippi he said we know that the U.S. is bad at math and science compared to other developed nations. And he says the problem in our country is that it's socially acceptable to say - for adults and children - to say, you know, openly, publicly, I am terrible at math.

You know, you hear people laugh about it. And he says no one wants to admit that they're illiterate, that they can't read or write. And yet, you know, we still have problems with that in this country. And he says in order to get students to stop hating math, you know, we have to change the perception that it's this subject that's too hard for us to understand and so therefore it's OK to be bad at it.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Sarah Gonzalez. She's a reporter for StateImpact Florida. We're talking about reporting that she's done on remedial education. You know, we talked about the negatives around remedial education, the fact that it's expensive, that the time you spend doing remedial classes you're not spending doing classes towards your degree, in many cases. That it can even add another year.

But there's an argument to be made for remedial education. You know, some would say it allows community colleges to accept everybody, to have that kind of open enrollment which is the only opportunity for some students.

And some people say if they didn't offer these remedial courses a lot of students wouldn't be getting to go to collage at all. What do you say about that?

GONZALEZ: Absolutely. I mean, community colleges in Florida and across the country, they have open door policies, right? If you go to a state university you have to apply and if you get accepted then you go straight into your college credit-bearing courses. Community colleges don't have anything like that.

Everyone is allowed to enroll. And so what they have is a college placement test to kind of gauge where your skills are and then they place you in classes - if they determine that you're not college-ready they place you in classes to help you get caught up. And so it is an opportunity for a lot of people who would be closed after college if, you know, if community colleges didn't accept them.

But I think everyone can agree that students who go straight from a high school shouldn't have to take remedial classes. I mean, remediation should really be for those non-traditional students, students who take a couple of years off and then decide to come back to school which we saw a lot of, you know, after the recession hit.

MARTIN: Are there any lessons from Florida's experience that you think that the rest of the country should be looking at?

GONZALEZ: I think the big takeaway is that there is no one solution. Florida is having to do three main things. Which is, one, increase the graduation requirements. You know, students have long been allowed to graduate from high school without taking a math class higher than Algebra I. The second thing is connect the college curriculum to the high school curriculum. So that you are preparing students for the next step if they want to go on to college.

And the third thing is, you know, the state is revamping its curriculum and assessments under this new set of standards called common core which most of the country is also adopting.

MARTIN: Sarah Gonzalez is a reporter for StateImpact Florida. That's a partnership between NPR and member stations. She was with us from member station WLRN in Miami. Sarah Gonzalez, thanks for joining us.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: And StateImpact Florida will be holding a live online chat to talk more about remedial education and what can be done to fix it. That's tomorrow at 4:00 P.M. Eastern Time. To join in go to Twitter and use the #npredchat. Or visit WLRN.org.

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