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LLOYD OMDAHL: Where does need for college remedial work begin?

Lloyd Omdahl

Around one-fourth of the students appearing on campuses aren't ready for college-level work and must enroll in no-credit remedial courses, resulting in a number of consequences.

Remedial courses waste student resources because the students have to pay tuition for courses that do not count toward graduation.

When confronted with remedial coursework, students are discouraged from pursuing careers requiring a college education and are the most likely to drop out of college completely.

Remedial courses divert college faculty from teaching the courses for which they were hired.

The sad truth is that many students who need remedial courses are not aware of their deficiencies until faced with college entrance exams or other measurements used in the junior and senior years of high school.

While the need for remedial work discourages some, others tackle the remedial work with a 75 percent success rate.

This may sound good, but it is safe to assume that most of the 25 percent who failed the remedial program dropped out of college and ended up in jobs that are rewarded with lower job satisfaction, smaller salaries and less job security.

For the past few years, the North Dakota University System has been following the "Pathways Plan" to reduce the need for remedial work by getting high schools to align coursework and standards with the institutions of higher learning.

While the need for an integrated approach is obvious to educators, the authority to impose mandates or directives by the Board of Higher Education or from the Department of Public Instruction is limited. Under our decentralized education system, school districts establish their own standards.

Our widespread phobia over testing handicaps change. The federally-sponsored No Child Left Behind and the state-sponsored Common Core both faltered on requirements for testing.

Without uniform and consistent testing, parents and students will not be aware of a growing need for remedial work until it is too late.

Focusing on remedial work at the college level is trying to solve the problem after the fact. By the time students get into high school, remedial work may be too late because the problem had developed long before high school.

To search for the root causes, I consulted Nell Mertz, a retired grade school teacher with decades of experience who worked to keep all students performing at their best.

Mertz explained how grade school teachers could recognize the particular needs of each student in a 22-student classroom and rescue them when they fell behind.

While she felt that the academic progress of each student could be managed with 22 students in a classroom, the year she ended up with only 14 students resulted in remarkable progress for everyone in the class. That suggests something about class sizes.

Mertz noted that when students hit middle and high school, they become more independent, less responsive to guidance, more sensitive to peer pressure and less inclined to do homework, all of which make identification of remedial needs more difficult.

But the real beginning of the need for remedial work begins before children appear for kindergarten or first grade. Students bring to school what they absorbed at home.

If parents bad-mouth schools and teachers, kids will think less of the system. If parents ridicule the instructional material, kids are less likely to study.

Generally speaking, parents with low expectations of their children are seldom disappointed.

Without effective remedial attention beginning with families and continuing through elementary, middle and high school, the outlook for many in the future generation will be bleak, and society will be saddled with a larger dependent population. And that is very expensive for everyone involved.

Omdahl is a retired professor of political science at UND and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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