The Crisis of Mediocre College Teaching

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Two major dilemmas highlight a continuing crisis in education: the performance of students and of teachers. Diploma to Nowhere,3 a program prepared by Strong American Schools and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, analyzed data of U.S. college students in 2004. They demonstrated that:

• 43% of all students at a public 2-year institution had enrolled in a remedial course

• 29% of all students at a public 4-year institution had enrolled in a remedial course

• 80% of students at Oklahoma Community College had enrolled in remedial courses

• 60% or more of the 40,000 freshman at California State University needed help in English and/or math

• 70% of students at Indiana Community College needed remediation in 2005.

This data suggests that most students arrive at college inadequately prepared. According to the Diploma to Nowhere article,3, “…When high school graduates enroll in college, as many as one million students fail placement exams every year. Well over one third of all college students need the help of remedial courses in order to acquire basic academic skills." It also maintains, "A high school degree no longer demonstrates that a graduate is ready for college. Students’ inadequate preparation for higher education has become a deep and widespread problem.”3

  # of students in remediation Cost of remediation
Public two-year 995,077 $1.88-$2.35 billion
Public four-year 310,403 $435-$543 million
Total 1,305,480 $2.31-$2.89 billion
Note: Data obtained from Diploma to Nowhere by Strong American Schools3

The article goes on to state that students in remediation classes are more likely to drop out of college than those who do not take such classes. In several minority institutions of higher education, approximately 80-95% of students admitted during the first year are required to take remedial courses in math, reading, and English. However, even in these courses, dropout rates are still pretty high, estimated to be about 70-80%. It is clear that high schools could do a lot more to help improve student preparation for college.

Arne Duncan, a U.S. secretary of Education, believes that schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing "a mediocre job in preparing instructors for the realities of the 21st century classrooms." A report by Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University's Teachers College, reports that 60% of school alumina interviewed from a 4-year university said that their programs did not prepare them to teach. Duncan urged every teacher-education program to make better outcomes for students the overarching mission that propels their efforts.1

Concurring with Duncan, David Steiner, one of New York’s education commissioners, also defines another perspective: “It is impossible in many states to tell which teachers produce the best student outcomes …or identify skills that make a difference in terms of student learning [which makes] teaching an indefinable art.”2 Steiner, who also served at the Hunter College’s School of Education, voiced the opinion that teachers-in-training studied theories and philosophies of education at the expense of practical, in-the-classroom experience. He believes that institutions need to focus on the practical rather than the hypothetical. This questions the value of teachers’ credentials, which mean nothing if we can’t tell how much the students are learning.

I tried to identify some of the specific strategies to the “art of teaching”:

• Manage classrooms - allow no cell phones; organize and check students skills of note-taking 

• Anchor new concepts to students' experiences and differential knowledge bases

• Daily assess students' knowledge and teaching effectiveness - use exams and homework

• Streamline subject content – teach similar topics in a “parallel” way or even repetitively

• Provide feedback for student learning – capitalize on “good errors”, providing adequate review and practice.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What strategies would you implement to improve your students' knowledge?




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