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Online solution to the education crisis

Offer remedial English, math classes through Internet

A Sept. 25 article about declining SAT scores and poorly prepared high school students has rekindled my focus on K-12 issues.

In the early 1990s I was heavily involved in the Sandia National Laboratories’ report, “Perspectives on Education in America,” which concluded the state of American public K-12 education was not as dismal as the U.S. government and Congress were claiming. The report became controversial because it debunked common arguments that SAT scores were falling and American education was failing.

The report indicated that, in fact, American public education was not failing and should be congratulated for providing service to an increasingly broad spectrum of the American population. Now, two decades later, American public K-12 education continues to be harshly criticized for failing to produce high school graduates who are prepared for the academic rigors of college life and for succeeding in producing many in need of remedial work in math and English.

Realizing that remediation was necessary, colleges have invested in producing remedial coursework, especially in mathematics and English, taxing budgets and generally failing to remediate many to the point of graduation. Lately, especially in public higher education, elected officials have attempted to push all remedial education to community colleges, believing it to be a less-expensive alternative. The result has been even less graduation success. And, once again, American public K-12 education is doing its job for an even broader spectrum of students, responding to expectations that are unreasonable at best. More poorly prepared students are being added to the cohort, creating the expanding need for remediation.

Perhaps it’s time for a change in approach, a paradigm shift toward a system that could potentially be more successful, more efficient, save money and even ease the burden on K-12 education.

Everyone’s heard of MOOCs – massive open online courses. Well, maybe not everyone. They’re online courses open at no charge to anyone who has access to a computer, offering college-level coursework not necessarily for credit. Such coursework could be used for personal development or to prepare a student to take a placement test to skip a course in college.

But let’s take the idea several steps further. Imagine developing MOOCs in math and English , the most commonly remediated subjects, that begin at some basic level and, upon completion, produce a student who could function at the same level as a student who had completed the first semester or year of college-level English and math. The courses could be administered by a single public university on behalf of state government.

Then, imagine making those MOOCs available, free of charge and continuously, to any student, ninth grade or above, who wanted to work through them. And finally, imagine allowing only those students who successfully completed the MOOCs to enter public four-year colleges. Students who did not complete the MOOCs could either attend community colleges from which they could transfer to four-year institutions or continue in the MOOCs until completion and then enter the four-year institutions, or attend a private college and pay more for their education. Upon completion of the MOOCs, the student could pay a small administrative fee and receive six to 12 college credits.

In this way, students would enter college more than fully prepared for college-level work in math and English. They would have six to 12 fewer college credits for which to pay normal fees, lessening the cost of their education. Colleges would no longer be required to offer and budget for the massive numbers of remedial as well as introductory English and math sections, lessening the pressure on their budgets. And society could stop blaming American public K-12 education for failure to achieve the unrealistic goal of improving the performance of all students while continuously adding less well prepared students to each cohort.

This approach represents a major paradigm shift in the transition from high school to college. But it’s a change from which everyone gains. I believe it’s worth a try.

Michael A. Wartell is the chancellor emeritus of IPFW. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.