This article reviews the need for remedial education, and why it has yielded limited results. Remedial education, also known as basic education or developmental education, refers to instruction provided to children, adolescents, and adults who lack fluency in reading, writing, mathematics, and other skills. Selected factors that account for the large number of students who leave high school not having learned basic skills are discussed, as well as what teachers need to know to present more effective instruction in reading, mathematics, and writing. Remedial education does not represent a short-term trend in the United States. Each year, many first-year college students must enroll in a remedial reading class, a remedial mathematics class, or in a remedial writing class. The magnitude of the need for remedial education may be greater than generally recognized because many first-year college students avoid enrolling in remedial classes despite their lack of fluency in basic skills.
Keywords Basic Education; Developmental Education; No Child Left Behind; National Assessment of Educational Progress; Non-Visual Information; Prior Knowledge; Remedial Education; Reading Fluency; Visual Information
Students in public schools throughout the United States have not shown significant improvement in reading or mathematics since the first National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 1969. Referred to as "The Nation's Report Card," NAEP assesses student performance of thousands of students periodically in a wide range of subjects including reading, mathematics, writing, science, and U.S. history. The majority of individuals who have received remedial education have lacked fluency in reading, mathematics, or writing fluency or a combination of these basic skills. The term remedial reading currently more often refers to adults than to children, and particularly to first-year college students, who often lack fluency in the 3 R's.
Upon college enrollment, the skills of these students are often tested to measure reading comprehension, mathematical understanding computational skills, and writing proficiency. Many first-year college students are subsequently required to enroll in remedial reading and reading mathematics classes. Mansfield and Farris (1991) reported that 74 percent of higher education institutions in the United States offered remedial education courses during 1989 and that 30 percent of first-year college students were enrolled in at least one remedial reading, writing, or mathematics class. Studies by the National Center for Education Statistics (2005b) have consistently found that public 2-year colleges have offered more remedial courses in reading, writing, and mathematics than other types of higher education institutions. A study by Shulock and Moore (2007) found that approximately 40 percent of first-time students in California community colleges who were not enrolled in a degree or certificate program were enrolled in courses to improve basic skills, job skills, or for personal enrichment. The wave of immigrants entering the United States since 1965 has resulted in millions more needing remedial education, particularly for developing fluency in speaking and reading English. The U.S. Census Bureau has projected that immigration will increase the U.S. population from 300 million in 2007 to 400 million in fewer than 50 years.
Remedial education lacks any specific definition. From the 1860s through the early 1960s, remedial education usually referred to a lack of achievement in reading, writing, or mathematics and to educational programs that provided instruction in these basic skills (Arendale, 2005). Since then, developmental education has been the preferred term and more frequently associated with college-age students. Remedial education is most commonly found in colleges, particularly in community colleges, although remedial instruction, usually remedial reading, is also taught in high schools and elementary schools. The National Center for Education Statistics (2005a) defines remedial reading as "instruction for a student lacking those reading, writing, or math skills necessary to perform college-level work at the level required by the attended institution" (NCES, 2005, p. 735). An increasing proportion of individuals receiving remedial education lack English fluency. Thus, remedial education is often taught by ESL teachers (teachers of English as a second language) or by ESOL teachers (teachers of English to speakers of other languages).
Educational Reforms in the United States
Many instructional, administrative, and legal reforms have been used to minimize the need for remedial education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, created to assist children from low-income homes, was based upon the assumption children living in poverty needed more educational services than children from affluent homes. Head Start, part of ESEA, has provided education to 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families to prepare preschool children to succeed in school. Special funding, often referred to as Title I, has allocated billions of federal dollars to assist educationally deprived children in low-income areas. This hope that a better education would eliminate poverty and increase academic performance was challenged by the Coleman Report (1966). This study concluded that student achievement was not markedly affected by improving such factors as the quality of teachers, changing school curricula, improving school buildings, or requiring children and adolescents to attend school.
After studying the American education system, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published an alarming report, A Nation at Risk in 1983. This study found that 23 million American adults were functionally illiterate in reading, writing, and comprehension and that student achievement in the United States was lower than in other industrialized nations. By severely criticizing the nation's elementary and secondary schools, major educational reforms were enacted including increasing the number of laws that affected education legislation, increasing financial allocations for education, elevating high school graduation requirements, decreasing class size, changing requirements for teacher licensure (certification), and requiring teachers to pass competency examinations.
The most recent effort to effect national school reform in public schools is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, federal legislation that intensified the use of school accountability, standards-based curricula, mandatory annual yearly progress (higher yearly test scores), and the use of technology as the principal means for improving student performance in U.S. public schools.
Assessing the Need for Remedial Education
Since 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has assessed long-term changes in academic performance among students in U.S. public and private schools. Selected students from grades 4, 8, and 12 are tested every four years in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and the arts. NAEP publishes findings related to school subjects and student populations (e.g., gender, grade, and race) in specific geographic regions, but it does not report the achievement of individual students or schools. Because NAEP has conducted assessments for several decades, it is possible to compare student achievement in reading and mathematics since the early 1970s. Although the national trend in reading performance has shown an increase in reading achievement for 9-year-olds-"students at age 13 show no significant improvement in recent years… . [and] at age 17, no measurable differences in [reading] performance were found between 1971 and 2004" for any reading assessment test used (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005, p. 9). Similar results have been found for mathematics achievement. The national trend in mathematics achievement reveals improvement for 9-year-olds and 13-year-old from 1973 to 2004, but mathematics scores for 17-year olds in 2004 did not differ significantly from the mathematics scores recorded in 1973.
Despite the implementation of a broad scope of educational reforms to increase student achievement since 1900, the use of different teaching methods, different instructional materials, and technology, particularly laptop computers, student achievement among high school students in U.S. public schools has remained stable for almost four decades. During 2004-2006, 76 percent of 4-year public institutions in the United States offered remedial services, and more than 99 percent of 2-year colleges provided remedial services (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005a, p. 309).
Why Remedial Education Yields Limited Results
Because so many students fail to make normal progress in reading, mathematics, and writing, each year the gap widens between their performance and the achievements of students of the same age and grade who record normal progress. There are many reasons that contribute to the failure to achieve normal progress. A lack of understanding about learning and language among teachers may constitute an important factor.
Fluent reading is a see-comprehend process, not a see-say-comprehend process. Recognizing words on a page of print depends upon the same perceptual skills process used to recognize a deer grazing in a meadow. To identify a deer does not require its observer to see it and pronounce its name to recognize it. To observe the deer or recognize the word deer is a see-comprehend process. It is not necessary to say words aloud to identify them, nor is necessary to change print to speech to comprehend what is written.
A reader's only goal is comprehension-making sense of print. The goal of...
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