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New school year, old troubles: Education and politics in California

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With a new school year underway and yet another election season upon us, let's 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 studies from the Pacific Research Institute, the National Center for Educational Statistics, California State University, and other educational agencies, 40% of US students must enroll in remedial classes to provide skills in reading, writing and math.

The numbers are worse for California. A CSU report showed that only 44% of incoming freshmen were sufficiently proficient in reading and math. In addition, even though 60% of incoming freshmen have earned a "B" or better grade average in a college preparatory curriculum, about 60% of college-bound students still require some form of remediation.

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

The time, expense, and emotional burden to students are significant. Remediation now costs well over $3,000 per student and generally does not count towards a degree. Consequently, graduation dates are delayed and expenses increase for students, the institutions, and taxpayers.

The impact to California and the US economy is enormous, though difficult to calculate. 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 US Gross Domestic Product). Overall, it is estimated that in California alone the total costs average $5.2 billion annually.

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The data regarding college graduate competencies are also discouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 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).

Besides our remediation problem, California has the worst rates in the nation for adults with low levels of basic literacy skills (23%) and who speak English poorly or not at all (13.2% vs. 5.5% US average). Such skills are vital for employment and, consequently, a productive workforce and thriving economy.

It is encouraging that high school students in advanced placement classes are up by 5% from a decade ago because this is an indicator of future college success. However, 80% of all high school graduates either do not attend, or complete, a college degree according to the latest available data from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. College is not for everyone; therefore, we must re-structure our K-12 towards 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?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a bipartisan coalition of elected officials and education leaders declared 2008 as the year of educational reform. Furthermore, it has been 14 years since the CSU trustees developed a policy to reduce the remediation need to less than 10%. We have gone in the opposite direction.

We need leaders to sift through and enact or develop forward-thinking proposals to reverse this tragic process. The costs and stakes are just too high and future too fragile to not act now.

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Michael Babich, Ph.D., Colonel, US Army (Retired) holds faculty appointments at the University of California, Davis and Heald & Sierra Colleges. He is the recipient of numerous teaching and research awards, and is co-founder of a start-up (more...)

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New school year, old troubles: Education and politics in California