Making High Schools Pay for Remediation

Mississippi is now considering bills to require high schools to pay community colleges money if their graduates are placed in remedial courses. This sounds reasonable, but it doesn’t really make any sense.

According to an article by Jackie Mader at The Hechinger Report:

Lawmakers in Mississippi will likely vote on two bills this winter that would require public school districts to front the costs if their graduates require remedial courses in the state’s community colleges. Undergraduates are placed in the lower-level courses to improve their skills in subjects like reading, writing, and math, after they are deemed unprepared for college level classes. Senator Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, introduced one of the bills in early January, which also proposes ending state funding of remedial education classes at state-supported community colleges and universities. Senator John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, introduced the second bill with nearly identical measures and an extensive proposal for a new funding formula. More than 40 percent of community college students in the state need remediation, which cost the state $35 million in teacher salaries, classroom space, utilities, and associated costs in 2012.

The Mississippi bill would require community colleges and state universities to report to the state the high schools for every student taking a remedial course. The state of Mississippi would then withhold the cost of that remedial course from the school districts from which the student graduated high school.

It’s not really clear how this policy is supposed to improve collegiate or high school education, but it’s sure punitive. As Polk puts it: “Who else do you hold responsible but the person or the entity that graduated the student?”

Well, why should we hold any one entity responsible for this?

Let us leave aside for a moment the fact that “being placed” in remedial courses doesn’t mean the student isn’t actually ready for college-level work (students are usually placed into remediation using a low-quality standardized test for which they can’t prepare). Let us also ignore the fact that taking money away from high schools and putting it into community colleges will likely only make high school performance worse.

No, the real problem with this bill is that the average community college student is 28 years old.

If he’s “not prepared” for college-level work that’s probably because he forgot the trigonometry he learned a decade ago in high school (if he took the class at all). That doesn’t mean policy should “hold the school responsible.” Indeed, it’s no one’s fault; it’s just the way learning works. We forget skills when we don’t use them for 5 or 10 years. That doesn’t mean the high school isn’t doing its job properly.

Yes, there is a connection between high school education and the achievement of college students, but it’s fairly indirect after a decade.

The logic behind this bill, in fact, is sort of the equivalent of my insurance company holding my driver education teacher responsible for a car accident I cause. Yes, potentially a better teacher could have led me to become a better driver, but come on, I took driver education during the Clinton administration. There’s not a direct line of responsibility here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer