Remedial Education, special instruction designed to help students catch up to a desired level of academic achievement. In the United States and Canada, remedial education is common at all levels of schooling, from preschools through colleges and universities. The most common remedial education programs focus on developing students’ basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.
Some remedial education programs attempt to remedy insufficient learning in previous academic settings. These programs typically involve reteaching subjects or redesigning lessons to make the instruction clearer or more personalized for individual students. Remedial programs may also be designed to compensate for an educational disadvantage. For instance, a preschool program may provide learning opportunities designed to help children who are considered at risk of educational failure because of limited English proficiency. In higher education, a remedial math course may help some first-year college or university students compensate for inadequate preparation in math during high school.
Remedial education is based on the presumption that a student underachieves because of extrinsic (environmental) factors, such as poverty or insufficient access to high-quality education. Remedial education thus differs from special education, where the source of the learning difficulty is generally viewed as intrinsic—that is, due to a disability or disorder that exists within the individual. To avoid a common misperception that students in remedial programs have an intrinsic learning difficulty, some educators in the United States prefer to use the term developmental education rather than remedial education. Most educators consider programs in English as a Second Language (ESL) to be neither remedial, developmental, nor special education but a separate category of educational support.
Historically, schools allowed children to fall behind academically if they had difficulty matching the achievement of their peers. Most students who found learning difficult eventually dropped out of school to find work in occupations that did not require high levels of educational achievement. However, as society has changed and work has become more complex, the accepted minimum levels of educational achievement have steadily risen, especially since the 1960s. Enrollment levels in remedial education programs have likewise risen.
II THE NEED FOR REMEDIAL EDUCATION
Many students need additional instructional support in a particular subject at some point in their school years. Some students need more remedial support than others.
Many educators consider remedial education necessary to overcome the ill effects of poverty. Schools always have had difficulty educating children who live in economically disadvantaged households. Educational researchers note that relatively few low-income households are able to afford educational resources that could help create a rich, supportive learning environment in the home. For instance, families living in poverty are less likely to be able to afford books, computers, encyclopedias, and other learning resources. Children in such households often have difficulty matching the academic achievement of more advantaged children who live in homes and communities that provide greater access to educational resources. In addition, parents with low incomes typically have lower levels of educational attainment themselves. These parents often find it difficult to offer their children the same sort of academic advice and support that wealthier and better-educated parents can provide their own children.
Schools in lower-income communities are typically funded less than schools in higher-income communities. On various measures, such as class sizes, teacher qualifications, access to curriculum materials, and library facilities, schools in lower-income communities rank below those in higher-income communities. The result is that often students in lower-income communities receive a lower-quality education. This problem produces a greater need for remedial education programs.
There are many other reasons why students may fall behind academically and need remedial instruction. Teachers differ in their expertness for teaching math, reading, and other subjects. Thus, a student might need remedial help if he had teacher A in first grade but not if he had been lucky enough to have teacher B. School systems also differ in their support for teachers. In a school district with overcrowded classrooms, the same teacher B might be overwhelmed with work and not be able to attend to individual needs as well. Finally, parent involvement plays an important role in a student’s learning. Students whose parents are highly involved in their education are less likely to need remedial help than students whose parents are not involved.
III PLACEMENT IN REMEDIAL COURSES
Many schools administer standardized tests to determine which students would benefit from placement in a remedial course. Students whose test scores fall below a predetermined level are eligible for remedial education. Many elementary and secondary schools may also place students in remedial courses based on a teacher’s recommendation. For instance, a history teacher may suggest a remedial reading course for a student who seems to have difficulty keeping up with the required reading for the class. Some colleges and universities may place students in remedial programs based on an analysis of courses completed in high school.
Eligibility for remedial programs does not always mean that such instruction will be provided. In the United States, for instance, fewer than 20 percent of high school students eligible for remedial reading classes are offered such instruction. The eligibility levels vary from school to school, as does the likelihood of receiving remedial instruction. Often demand for remedial education exceeds supply. That is, there are more students who qualify for services than there are funds to provide the needed services. Remedial instruction is typically made mandatory only for certain students at the college and university level.
IV ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY SCHOOL PROGRAMS
Remedial education courses are more common in elementary and junior high schools than in high schools. Many elementary schools strive to introduce remedial education as early as possible, generally in the primary grades (kindergarten to grade 3). Educators target these grades because research indicates that overcoming difficulties in reading, writing, and math becomes more difficult as children grow older. At the secondary school level, many students require remedial support to help meet graduation standards.
In the United States, the federal Title I program, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, provides funding for remedial programs in approximately 90 percent of all school districts. A school district becomes eligible for Title I funds primarily based on the estimated number of children in the district who come from low-income families. Most school districts concentrate their Title I grants to fund remedial programs in the elementary grades. Approximately 11 percent of elementary and secondary school students in the United States attend a remedial program funded through Title I. In Canada, funding for remedial education is more decentralized. School districts receive general funds from their province or territory’s Ministry of Education, and each district decides on its own how much to fund remedial programs. Most remedial education programs in Canada do not receive federal funding. However, school districts with employment-preparation programs may apply for funding from Human Resources Development Canada, a federal agency.
In many respects, instruction in remedial courses is similar to instruction in regular, or mainstream, courses. However, schools typically limit the class size of remedial courses to a relatively small number of students per teacher. This class size gives teachers more opportunity to respond to the unique needs of individual students. Most remedial education classes consist of groups of fewer than ten students per teacher. In some cases, one-on-one tutoring (one instructor working with one student) can help the student make substantial gains in achievement in a relatively short period of time. One-on-one tutoring can be especially effective in remedial reading programs. However, most schools lack the resources to provide instruction on such a personal level.
Elementary and secondary schools usually offer remedial programs during normal school hours, but increasing numbers of schools offer after-school and summer-school programs. These programs appear to be the most successful ones because participating students do not have to miss regular classroom instruction while attending the remedial course and thus benefit from the additional time spent in classes.
V COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY PROGRAMS
Colleges and universities in the United States first introduced remedial courses in reading, writing, and mathematics during the 19th century. As college enrollments rose during the 20th century, the number of remedial programs in American higher education also increased. Today, college remedial programs—sometimes called college prep programs—are offered in virtually all community colleges, in more than 80 percent of public four-year universities, and in more than 60 percent of private four-year institutions in the United States. About 30 percent of students entering U.S. colleges and universities take at least one remedial course, but the percentage of students enrolled in remedial courses varies widely from school to school.
In Canada, it is rare for universities to offer remedial instruction, although some offer basic-level courses for no academic credit. Students who wish to enroll in a university must meet its basic entry requirements; some students may attend summer school or adult education classes before applying to meet these requirements. Canadian community colleges serve mainly to provide vocational and technical training.
Most American colleges and universities design their remedial courses to increase academic achievement in reading, writing, or mathematics. Completion of college-level remedial courses usually does not count as academic credit that can be applied toward an academic degree or program. Colleges and universities may require some students to satisfactorily complete particular remedial courses before they can take other courses for credit.
Colleges and universities also offer remedial help through instructional support centers or tutoring programs. These resources provide assistance for students already enrolled in standard, for-credit courses or programs. For example, many colleges have a writing center where students can receive assistance on writing assignments. Many also have similar centers to support mathematics or other specific courses, such as chemistry and physics. Some colleges and universities provide students with access to personal tutors who offer academic support in a variety of subjects. Instructional support centers and tutoring services rarely offer academic credit to students who use these programs.
Colleges and universities generally offer remedial courses during the normal school year, from fall through spring. Many also offer remedial programs during the summer. Some colleges require entering students who need remedial instruction to enroll in the summer so they can complete all necessary remedial study before their first year of college study begins.
VI ISSUES AND TRENDS
Currently, students from low-income families are overrepresented in remedial classes at all levels. Because a larger proportion of minority families have poverty-level incomes than families in the general population, minority students are also disproportionately represented in remedial classes. However, since the 1960s the differences in academic achievement between low-income and middle-class students have steadily narrowed. Likewise, the differences in achievement between minority students and white students have also become smaller. Some scholars attribute these trends to the concurrent rise of remedial education programs throughout the country.
Despite these gains, some educators and policymakers have proposed alternatives to remedial education in elementary and secondary schools. For example, some schools require students to repeat grades if their academic achievement falls below a targeted level. Many educators disagree with this policy, pointing to research indicating that students who repeat grades demonstrate no long-term gains in academic achievement. Critics also argue that requiring students to repeat grades is generally more expensive for school districts than implementing well-designed remedial education.
Some politicians and some trustees of colleges and universities have proposed eliminating college remedial programs altogether. They argue that colleges and universities should not have to reteach the material that high schools should have taught students in the first place. Defenders of remedial education claim that without remedial programs in colleges and universities, many high school graduates would never have the opportunity to attend college. These remedial education advocates argue that low-achieving high-school graduates would be forced to take low-paying jobs, receive government assistance, or impose costs on society in some other way. Increasingly, colleges and universities have responded to this debate by shifting most remedial education programs to two-year community colleges. For example, in 1998 the board of trustees at the City University of New York voted to end remedial classes at the system’s four-year colleges and permit them only at its two-year community colleges. Other four-year institutions have discontinued their own remedial programs and instead contract with local community colleges to offer remedial classes to their students.