Leaders: Bring us fresh ideas for education reform | TheUnion.com

Leaders: Bring us fresh ideas for education reform

As I sit here in a local coffee shop, high school students are arriving on their lunch break. I wonder, as past generations have: Are we providing them with the best possible means to excel and create their own legacy? With a new school year underway for both college and K-12 students, and yet another election season upon us, perhaps it is appropriate to remind ourselves how these two events are linked.

Aside from the obvious issue of funding education, there are also regulations, mandates, and controls passed by our elected officials. Unfortunately, the report card continues to disappoint.

According to collective studies from the Pacific Research Institute, the National Center for Educational Statistics, California State University, and other educational agencies, about 40 percent of all U.S. students have to enroll in remedial classes to provide skills to students that have no mastery in reading, writing and math.

The numbers are worse for California, in which about 60 percent of college-bound students require some form of remediation. This is consistent with a CSU report that showed only 44 percent of incoming freshmen were proficient in reading and math. This, in turn, raises questions when one also considers the contrasting fact that about 60 percent of incoming freshmen have earned a “B” or better grade average in a college preparatory curriculum.

Why aren’t we demanding an explanation, and eventual solution, for the discrepancy between K-12 and college requirements?

The time, expense, and even emotional burden to students are significant. Remediation now costs well over $3,000 per student. Keep in mind that remedial courses do not count towards a degree (but may affect their official status as either full- or part-time students). Consequently, graduation dates are delayed and expenses increase for students, the institutions, and taxpayers.

The impact to California and the U.S. economy is enormous, though difficult to calculate. For example, there are direct costs associated with remedial education (e.g., tuition, costs to businesses) and indirect costs (e.g., welfare, tax revenue, effects on the U.S. Gross Domestic Product). Overall, it is estimated that in California alone the total costs average $5.2 billion annually.

The data regarding college graduate competencies are also not so encouraging. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, 59 percent of recent college graduates cannot read and understand short texts (e.g., labels) or perform other simple tasks that are, or at least used to be, expected of high school students (e.g., costs per ounce of food items; amount of gas needed to drive from one place to another).

My personal experience teaching in the college classroom environment bears this out. For instance, I may ask which is the better deal when purchasing four tires: Buy three get one free, or 20 percent off all tires? The students answering correctly varies from 15 to 75 percent amongst vocational college, community college, and upper university level students (sorry, but I shall let the reader figure out the answer).

Furthermore, our state has the worst rate in the nation for adults with low levels of basic literacy skills (23 percent) and adults age 18 to 64 who speak English poorly or not at all (13.2 percent vs. 5.5 percent US average). Such skills are vital for employment and, consequently, a productive workforce and thriving economy.

It is encouraging that students in gifted or advanced placement classes is up by five percent from a decade ago, and California has among the highest AP testing rates in the US. This is considered a good indicator of future college success for such students. However, 80 percent of all high school graduates either do not attend, or complete, a college degree according to the latest available data (2008) from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. College is not for everyone; therefore, we must re-structure our K-12 toward useful skill sets, rather than how to excel at the SAT or ACT.

Who should be held accountable? Is this yet another case in which a system becomes too bureaucratic and involves so much misguided governmental intervention that we have no idea who (or which agency) will take responsibility?

2008 was declared the year of educational reform after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger convened a bipartisan coalition of elected officials and education leaders. Furthermore, it has been 14 years since the California State University trustees developed a policy to reduce the need for remediation to less than 10 percent. We have gone in the opposite direction.

We need leaders, elected and otherwise, that can sift through and enact the many proposals already offered by several forward-thinkers, and to perhaps add some novel ideas of their own in order to reverse this tragic process. The costs and stakes are just too high and future too fragile to not act now in this regard.

As this writing concludes, a tired student just walked in … I think the coffee will be my treat.

Michael Babich, Ph.D., Colonel, US Army (retired), has faculty appointments at UC Davis, Heald and Sierra Colleges. He is the recipient of numerous teaching and research awards, and is co-founder of Mission Therapeutics (formerly ImmVaRx), a start-up biotechnology company.

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