PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - NOVEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 3
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Too Late for Remediation

By Irving Kott

PREPARATION FOR AN ENGINEERING CAREER SHOULD BEGIN WELL BEFORE A STUDENT ENTERS COLLEGE.

The time is long past to establish and strengthen academic standards in universities throughout the United States. A positive step in that direction would be elimination of remedial education at all senior level educational institutions. This is particularly important for critical professional disciplines such as engineering. The remedies for high school graduates with academic deficiencies should be addressed at community colleges and private institutions.

There are too many students entering colleges and universities who are deficient in English or mathematics. Frequently, they are deficient in both. They progress from kindergarten through 12th grade courtesy of social promotions, and the process doesn't stop at the high school door. Many of these ill-prepared and poorly motivated students go on to obtain undergraduate and even graduate degrees. Their paths are lubricated by tweaking the curricula to the lowest academic standards by professors who rarely assign grades measured by competent standards of scholastic performance. The situation in disciplines other than engineering, mathematics, or the physical sciences, such as education, where the training of teachers for the K-12 takes place, is even worse.

Remediation in the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics at the university level is one of the major reasons that academic standards are declining. Remediation programs divert attention and resources from legitimate higher education programs. They lower the academic level at which professional level courses should be taught. Professors confronted with so many underskilled, underachieving students have little choice but to "dumb down" course content and inflate grades. The current academic environment almost demands such a response. Students who have the capacity and motivation to perform university-level work don't get the rigorous, challenging, professionally enhancing courses they deserve.

Preparation for an engineering career should commence long before a student enters college. Youngsters who plan to enter engineering, or for that matter a career in mathematics or one of the physical sciences, should prepare themselves by following a rigorous and challenging academic path in high school. They should have four years of English, and plenty of strong math and science courses, along with a foreign language.

A few years ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times pointed out the poor performance of United States students in mathematics compared with the other advanced, industrialized countries of the world. It went on to name the country where secondary school students ranked the highest, which surprisingly was the Czech Republic. According to the article, the usual class size in the Czech Republic at that time was about 40 students. The only audio-visual equipment available to the teacher was a chalk-board, and classrooms were not equipped with computers. The situation in the Czech Republic makes it obvious that the problems besetting our educational system cannot be solved simply by throwing billions more dollars at it, as some educators would have the public believe.

As engineering educators, we need to seriously think about the shortcomings of our educational system. Our society and economic future are at stake. We owe it to the nation and the engineering profession. So much of our high-tech employment and manufacturing jobs have already gone overseas. This process is taking place not just because the domestic wage scale is higher here than in India or China. Fifty-five percent of doctoral degrees last year were awarded to foreign students. What we are witnessing is the dumbing down of America, and this laissez-faire attitude toward academic remediation at senior level educational institutions is a significant contributing factor.

Irving Kott is a professor of civil engineering at California State University at Los Angeles.

 

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LAST WORD: Too Late for Remediation - By Irving Kott
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