What Is to Be Done?

While educators could not agree on who or what was ultimately responsible for the widespread lack of basic skills among high school graduates, they did agree that their own efforts significantly improved student skills. While the effectiveness of remedial education is difficult to study, the few studies that have been conducted show that students who participate in remedial education are significantly more successful in college than are students who need such education but fail to enroll in the requisite courses.34 Independent assessments by researchers like David Breneman and William Haarlow repeat that "remediation is surely a good investment."35 This study suggests that the cost of remedial education per full-time equivalent student in post-secondary schools is about 10 percent less than the cost to produce a "successful" student in high school.

If, as these observations suggest, remedial education is effective and relatively cheap, there is no reason to favor curtailing it. The observation that the lack of basic skills costs post-secondary schools and employers a great deal of money does not mean that the money spent on it is wasteful or unnecessary. To the contrary, with more than a third of high school students lacking basic skills, the evidence suggests that we ought to devote even more resources to remedial education.

Rather than cutting back on those who are treating the problem, we should focus our energies on identifying the cause and preventing its occurrence. There is certainly an element of truth in the observations of some remedial education instructors that the social problems of students account for some portion of their failure to acquire basic skills in high school. But educators can do little to change those social conditions. Instead, it is more productive to consider ways in which schools can reduce the number of students who graduate having never learned basic skills.

While this study does not deal at length with solutions to the problem, it is reasonable to conclude with some possible solutions to this burgeoning problem of remedial education:

1. Public school districts and private schools should implement a rigorous test that students must pass before graduating from high school. At the very least, this would re-enforce the idea that there is an academic standard high school students are expected to attain in order to graduate. While it is no panacea, a graduation test would help to shore up the integrity of a high school diploma and give high schools a greater incentive to ensure that their students acquired basic skills.

2. Public school districts and private schools should shoulder at least some of the financial burden of addressing the lack of basic skills among their graduates. A number of organizations have proposed some sort of "money-back guarantee" for high school diplomas. In other words, if high school graduates are unable to demonstrate mastery of basic skills, schools would have to pay for at least some of the cost of remedial education for those students. This financial responsibility would provide a further incentive to schools to ensure that their graduates were minimally competent.

3. Allow families to choose the elementary and secondary schools their children attend. Parents should be able to choose alternative schools for their children when a school or district fails to provide an adequate education. One of the reasons that America's system of higher education attracts the best students from all over the world is the presence of a competitive system that provides students with choices. Post-secondary students can choose among a large number of community colleges, public universities, private colleges, or vocational schools. Meanwhile, elementary and secondary students are assigned to their schools, and are unable to escape poor performing schools unless they possess the financial wherewithal to relocate to a better public school district or pay tuition at a private school. Offering K-12 student the same kind of school choices that we already provide college students will create a more competitive elementary and secondary system that delivers higher quality and greater opportunities.