Can We Reduce the Cost of Remediation in Our Schools?

By Jim Rickabaugh, Ph.D.

Is it possible to significantly reduce the amount of time, money, effort and energy spent trying to remediate the learning of students who for some reason were not successful the first time? We currently allocate immense resources to remediation classes and services, so finding a way to significantly reduce it could mean huge savings.

For some, the answer feels obvious.  If students just tried harder, parents were more supportive or teachers cared more and “taught better,” we would not have this problem.  For others, the answer is different, but equally obvious the need for remediation has been with our schools since they were organized.  If this aspect of schooling could be changed, someone would have done so long ago.  Remediation is a universally accepted consequence of attempting to educate students using a one-size-fits-all approach regardless of their individual needs.

Currently we ignore those needs and allow students to fail, and then provide costly remedial services to the best of our ability. There may actually be a third approach that holds great potential.  Rather than a people problem, remediation is more likely a system problem.  There really may be a way to get teaching and learning right the first time for all or almost all learners.

Let’s consider for a moment the factors that result in students not learning what they are taught.  For some students, what they are being taught does not seem relevant, meaningful, useful or important in their lives so they fail to engage or make the effort necessary to learn the first time.  For other students, the instruction they receive is not presented in a way that responds to or takes advantage of the way they are able to learn effectively. Consequently, they fall behind their peers and begin to require additional services and support for their learning. These students have reached a point where they are convinced that they are “flawed” learners. Their hope is gone. They see no possibility of success, so they withdraw rather than face the embarrassment and constant reminder of what they cannot do. One or both of these factors seem to be present for an overwhelming majority of students receiving some type of remediation service.

So what might be done to overcome these barriers and unleash the learning potential of a much wider array of students? We believe, and a growing body of research supports the conclusion, that personalizing learning for all students might be the answer.  Instead of marching students through a standardized classroom, curriculum and educational program, what if we started by collecting a rich, broad array of information about students as learners?  Students themselves, depending on age and level f development, might even assist in this process.  In some cases parents might contribute.  We could use formal instruments, informal observations and othe data sources to gain a full picture of the learner.

Next, we design a learning path that is based on who the student is as a learner. We could organize the presentation of new content and skills to build on what is already known, draw on previously successful approaches and tap areas of individual interest, while maintaining appropriate rigor and moving toward world class standards for knowledge and skills. Dr. Mel Levine, physician, researcher and author, has proven that by focusing on learning strengths, we can make more and faster learning progress with students.  In this environment, our instruction will likely resemble coaching more than the traditional lecture approach.   Along the way, we can reinforce even small successes, support students to reflect on their learning strategies and build on areas where they are seeing progress.  In short, we begin to nurture hope in students who have not felt it before or for a long time.  A personalized approach builds on factors that enhance student engagement and employs strategies most likely to assure that students can learn what is presented to them. The combination of these factors when applied thoughtfully and in the context of positive, influential adult relationships with students predictably will increase the number of students who are successful learners the first time.

Engaging students in learning that is personalized for them should dramatically increase the number who “get it the first time.” This approach may be more expensive, at least in the beginning.  However, the tens of billions of dollars we currently spend on remediation that would no longer be necessary could be repurposed to support the work. This realization starts to make it clear that we really may be on to something.