Second-Chance Collegians: Inside the Remedial Classroom

There is a lot of attention being given these days to remediation in higher education. “Failure to Launch,” reads one representative headline, “Community College Students Can’t Meet Higher Goals.”

The numbers vary but, on average, suggest that about 35 percent to 40 percent of students in state colleges and universities are held for one or more basic skills courses. The numbers increase in the community college, typically 60 percent and higher. So, roughly half of post-secondary students in the United States need some assistance to do college-level work.

These numbers are alarming; however, some form of remediation has existed in American higher education for a very long time, and, by some estimates, the numbers have remained modestly stable. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, more than 40 percent of entering students were involved in a preparatory program. In the 1970s, Berkeley was holding about 50 percent of its students for remedial English. On some campuses, the numbers are going up, and that increase can be accounted for by the declining conditions of some K–12 districts but, also, by an increase in the number of people attending college: people who, a generation or two ago, would not have thought college possible or economically necessary. Over the last thirty years, the percentage of people over age forty attending college has more than doubled.

Placement in basic English, reading, or mathematics is strongly affected by educational and economic inequality. Yet, in one national study 24 percent of students from the top income quartile took one or more such courses. Likewise, 10 percent of students who had a strong pre-collegiate education were also held for one or more remedial courses. Both across and within basic skills classrooms, the students are a varied lot.

For students, basic skills courses extend time in school. They must take courses that typically earn no graduation or transfer credit, and if they have financial aid, they use it up. At the legislative level, it is the expense of large numbers of basic skills courses that is propelling remediation onto the national stage. But several studies suggest that the entire remedial effort accounts for 1 percent to 2 percent of the country’s higher education budget. That’s a lot of money, but not of the catastrophic levels the headlines lead us to believe.

Legislative outrage is fueled not only by expense, but also by a string of reports showing that the success rates of students held for remedial courses is not good. For example, of those students placing at the lowest level of basic skills, especially in more than one area—math, English, reading—only 16 percent complete the entire remedial series. Yet, the research findings on effectiveness are mixed, and do show that for many students who are not severely underprepared (particularly in reading, the core academic skill), basic skills courses can make a positive difference ...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.