The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Why Community Colleges Struggle to Increase College Completion Rates: Part Deux

In my last entry, I commented that Defending the Community College Equity Agenda (Thomas Bailey and Vanessa Smith Morest (eds.) Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2006) addresses several key threats to the community college equity agenda. The last entry’s comments were generally favorably disposed toward the book. This entry is a bit more critical.

The book’s coverage of weak secondary school academic preparation is my only disappointment. There is no chapter or deep analysis that looks back to secondary schools as a cause and solution for excessive remediation (Kirst, Michael and Venezia, Andrea (eds.). From High School to College (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2004). The book does not have a K-14 focus, and is essentially a horizontal treatment of the community college rather than a vertical perspective. The authors mention the college preparation issue several times, but do not push much beyond that.

For example, hundreds, if not thousands, of different placement tests are used to evaluate entering students, so it can be difficult for students to understand what is expected of them. California community colleges, for example, use more than 100 different tests. Texas has a required statewide placement exam, but many colleges in Texas also use their own exam for placement. The most widely used placement tests are constructed by ETS and ACT, but many others are designed by higher education departments or faculty at individual community college campuses.

There is a wide range of acceptable student-performance levels on placement tests, and tracking the proportion of students who need remedial education is virtually impossible. Indeed, estimates of the number and percent of remedial students are all over the place. None of the experts are comfortable with the current definitions.

The most widely cited remedial rates from the U.S. Department of Education, Condition of Education, 2001, are among the lowest: 42 percent of students in two-year institutions, and 20 percent in four-year institutions. Other indicators are much higher. The Academic Senate for the 109 California Community Colleges found far more than half of their entering students were placed at a "level below college readiness." The U.S. Education Department's "Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000" reports that 12th graders in 1992 had a remediation rate of 61.1 percent for community colleges and 25.3 percent at four-year colleges.

What does "remedial" mean? While a term that is used so frequently, and so freely, might seem to call for a clear definition, when applied to postsecondary education, its meaning is murky at best.

Once remedial students reach community college the book provides impressive and novel insights about developmental education. The use of case studies works well for these topics. The authors conclude with two major points:

…there is no general agreement as to the specific reading, writing, and math skills needed to learn from the postsecondary curriculum. The lack of a common benchmark creates problems for deciding what should be taught in developmental education courses.

…there is a serious shortage of controlled evaluation research to support them, which is troubling in view of claims that postsecondary remedial course work is ineffective [page 257}.

Teachers College is the site for a multi million dollar U.S. Department of Education randomized clinical trial of community college interventions such as dual enrollment. We can look forward to more major publications by Bailey and Morest.

Book review of Thomas Bailey and Vanessa Smith Morest (eds.) Defending the Community College Equity Agenda (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2006) pages 299, ISBN 0-8018-8447-0.

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