“What do you think the subject of a sentence is? Don’t worry about getting the answer right or wrong. This is completely anonymous. If you can’t think of a definition or how to word it, that’s ok. Just write down the following sentence and underline what you think the subject is: The dog eats bones. Again, don’t worry about whether your answer is right or wrong.”
This is how I started one of my developmental English classes within the last year. I distributed index cards and gave the students similar instructions for the term “verb.” In our lowest level developmental class, this is where we start: the simple sentence, so I wanted to get an idea of where my students were with regards to the components of a simple sentence. I collected the index cards and reviewed them after class. Less than ½ of the students could correctly define or identify the subject or verb of a simple sentence, and some of their risk-free guesses were way off base.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while and/or you’re in higher education, you know that there is a movement to eradicate developmental coursework in colleges (I’ve written about it a few times before). The theory is that if you put a student into a college-level class, he’ll perform at college-level, regardless of placement scores. As for placement scores, many people have been arguing they’re ineffective, shouldn’t be mandatory, and should also be eradicated.
Clearly, these people are not in our classrooms.
I teach English at all levels—from developmental to college-level composition. And I can tell you that there is no way the students in that developmental English class would ever have survived a freshman composition class. No way. At all. No matter how much tutoring or support we gave them, they would have failed. Miserably. Because you can’t write a college essay if you can’t write a sentence. Period.
The same is true of math. At our lowest level, math begins with adding whole numbers. No, I’m not kidding. We work our way up to fractions and ratios and multi-step problems. Do you really think that students lacking these basic skills will ever survive a college-level algebra class? Or even a Quantitative Reasoning Class? Probability and Statistics? If you think they can, you’re…well, quite possibly delusional. You can argue for more support—more tutoring—labs—supplemental instruction all day long. But the fact is this: students need instruction in basic skills to succeed.
It is easy enough to say “If we just put them in the introductory freshman classes, they’ll make it” when you haven’t taken a look at one of the short paragraphs written in a developmental English class. It’s easy when you haven’t seen a student fail a test on 4th-grade-level math skills. It’s easy when you haven’t spent 45 minutes showing a student how to turn on a computer and open Microsoft Word to begin typing a paragraph. It’s easy when you haven’t watched a student struggle to read a college-level textbook, stumbling over 8th-grade-level vocabulary. Easy enough when you haven’t heard a frustrated student vent in your office about how hard he’s trying but still not “getting it.” Easy enough when he’s not in your office, defeated, declaring, “I’m just not smart enough! I just can’t do it!” It’s easy enough when you’re not the one burdened with challenging them, supporting them, encouraging them—all while trying to get them the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. Easy enough.
And so to those who argue in favor of eliminating developmental education, I say this: Come visit us—our classroom doors are open.
Come and join us—sit in on a class—and then tell me you’re ready to push these kids on through (as they’ve been pushed through their entire lives). Tell me they’re ready. But be prepared to watch them fail. Or be prepared to start lowering our academic standards. Because if you want them to succeed (and if you define that as passing grades that lead to retention), you’re going to have to. Because they’re not all ready. And that’s why developmental education exists: we get them ready.
PS: Have you read my disclaimer?