I am writing to respond to Kevin Yamamuras article, Teaching the unprepared, which appeared in Thursdays Tribune. Yamamura reports that CSU officials are searching for ways to hasten students through the system and devote resources to those who will earn degrees. The article also explains that the CSU is looking for ways to save valuable resources.
Presumably, one way the CSU is attempting to save money and speed up students progress is by creating a new mandatory remedial program called Early Start that begins in summer 2012 (and which is mentioned very briefly in the article). This new program will be required of all students who have already been admitted to the CSU but who have been flagged as remedial because placement test scores indicate they struggle with math and/or writing.
But creating new programs costs money. As the director of writing at Cal Poly, I am very familiar with the writing skills students bring to our classes, and I am familiar with the new CSU-mandated Early Start Program for English (as a writing expert, I dont pretend to speak for math faculty) and would like to offer some additional details that were not covered in this article.
To start, I do not believe the new CSU Early Start program will save resources. Rather, the CSU has already spent untold amounts of money during a continual budget crisis that forces CSU campuses to create a program that solves a problem that doesnt actually exist.
The Early Start Program requires students who need additional support in math and/or English to complete a 15-hour summer experience (the CSUs term) prior to beginning coursework in the fall. These students already have been granted entrance into a CSU and, as such, have been deemed prepared for college. Students who fall into this category come from very diverse backgrounds some are second-language students, some are firstgeneration students, others come from high schools that didnt have especially strong writing or math programs. And other students simply struggle with writing or math. And thats OK. (I struggled with math in college, but still managed to earn a BA, MA, and PhD in English.)
CSU campuses have already developed progressive curricula to support students with varying skill levels. Unlike the CSU, instructors do not assume that every student in cookie-cutter fashion will arrive on our campuses with exactly the same skills and talents as every other student. Students do not take placement tests to be told that they are not ready for college (as Steve Boilard from the Legislative Analysts Office indicates in the article); rather, they take placement tests to be told which sequence of courses might best support them and, in turn, ensure their success.
Significantly, the CSUmandated Early Start program is not replacing existing coursework. For instance, at Cal Poly, our students will take the same writing courses they have always taken. Three years ago, the English Department implemented a new Stretch Program wherein students who need additional support with writing work with the same instructor and the same cohort of students for two consecutive quarters. I taught our stretch writing course in fall and winter, which means that I worked with the same group of talented, motivated, dedicated students for 20 weeks and can attest that these students are in no way unprepared. I have the utmost respect for them, though they dont feel this same level of respect coming from the CSU.
In effect, Early Start will penalize students like mine by requiring them to pay an additional $182 on top of their tuition (yes, students must also pay for this new requirement). And they would also have to pay for their own transportation to campus, along with room and board. This is an added financial burden that the CSU is once again passing off to students.
In short, we are already supporting our students, but the CSU is making our jobs even more difficult. I cant stress this enough: It is not feasible to help a student who struggles with the complex intellectual task of writing to demonstrate tangible improvement in 15 hours. The entire approach is deeply flawed.
In many ways, state and local media have given the CSU a pass on this program. While the media seem rightfully focused on criticizing rising executive pay and tuition hikes, I also encourage them to look more closely at money spent on programs that no one wants and that claim to solve problems that campuses dont have. Money has been spent on creating positions in the Chancellors Office to oversee the implementation of the Early Start program, while faculty and administrators on individual campuses have spent money and energy creating new websites, communicating the new requirement to high schools, writing curriculum, hiring instructors, creating new online course management systems, creating new materials to explain this requirement to incoming students, etc. etc.
The CSU Chancellors office is implementing this program apparently to save money? despite the protests and concerns voiced by CSU faculty organizations, including the CSU English Council, which is comprised of English administrators and faculty who have expertise in writing instruction. The Academic Senate of the entire CSU system has already opposed the implementation of the Mandatory Early Start Programs.
Further, Academic Senates on CSU campuses including Cal Polys voted not to support this program, determining that it is not in the best interest of their students. The CSU, on the other hand, is implementing this summer program without any evidence showing that mandatory summer programs, like Early Start, contribute to student success; rather, data shows that, in some instances, mandatory programs can actually slow a students progress toward her degree.
Rather than try to figure out whats wrong with students entering the CSU (which seems to be the general focus of the article in The Tribune), I work with students to better understand how to support them. They bring unique talents and experiences that enhance both my classroom and my life. And they are, indeed, prepared for college.
Brenda Helmbrecht is director of writing at Cal Polys English Department.