Readin’, Writin’ and ‘Rithmetic One More Time: The Role of Remediation in Vocational Education and Job Training

Publication September 1991

A furor has erupted in this country over basic skills. Complaints from the business community about the deficiencies of the labor force, criticism of the educational system, and alarm about high levels of illiteracy have all increased concerns about skill levels. Deficiencies in basic skills are also problems for the work-related education and job training programs, as many have felt unable to proceed with relatively job-specific training without first wrestling with the problem of underprepared individuals. Most postsecondary educational institutions and job training programs have increased the remedial education they provide, and most of them agree that the problem will become worse.

This report–part of a series from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE) examining the coordination among vocational education, Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) programs, and welfare-to-work programs–examines the relationship between remedial education and job-related skill training because so little is known about this nexus. Given the proliferation of both work-related training and remedial education, one important issue is the coordination problem–both the coordination among the major providers of remedial education and the coordination between remediation efforts and job-specific training. A second crucial question is effectiveness. Since remediation is instrumental to achieving other goals–especially entry into and success in vocational education or job training–the question of whether existing remedial efforts are successful in preparing individuals for subsequent job training is paramount. A final issue which proves central–and is linked closely to that of effectiveness–is that of teaching methods. Despite the variety of institutions providing remediation, most programs use similar teaching methods–an approach we label “skills and drills”–despite several a priori reasons to doubt its effectiveness.

The Existing System

To examine these issues and to describe the vast array of remediation efforts linked to vocational education and job training, we completed telephone surveys of providers in twenty-three regions within nine states, supplemented by visits to a variety of typical and exemplary programs. The survey results enable us to describe common practices in community colleges, technical institutes, adult basic education programs, JTPA programs, and welfare-to-work programs–publicly supported efforts that dwarf the voluntary literacy efforts and community-based programs that often receive more media attention. In all the communities we studied, remediation proves to be ubiquitous, with a wide variety of institutions providing some form of basic skills instruction. A second characteristic of local systems is that, in theory, they are structured to provide a hierarchy of programs leading from the lowest levels of literacy (and often math competency) to the collegiate level. In practice, however, the mechanisms of referral among programs are poorly developed; systems of guiding students through the maze are almost nonexistent; most programs have very modest ambitions; and dropout rates are high–so that the smooth continuum of courses which might exist is rare. Within such a system, the common practice of referring individuals to other institutions for remediation–one that appears to maximize cooperation and coordination–may in fact be counterproductive.

Within most remedial programs, a “new orthodoxy” about teaching methods has emerged despite the lack of any national standards or a national curriculum: In place of the uniform curriculum that prevailed fifteen years ago with progress based on seat-time, most programs now describe themselves as individualized, self-paced, with the majority also competency-based and open-entry/open-exit, allowing students to proceed at their own pace and to leave when they have mastered certain competencies. In addition, almost all of them follow an approach to teaching we label “skills and drills,” in which complex competencies such as reading, writing, and mathematical facility are broken into discrete skills on which students drill.

The popularity of “functional context literacy training,” which presents literacy training in the context of skills required on the job, and the emerging convention that students learn best when competencies are taught in some concrete application (or contextualized) suggest that coordinating remediation with job skills training might be effective. However, almost no remedial programs allied with vocational education and job training programs relate the content of remediation to the job skills training that will presumably follow. The most common practice is to require students to complete remediation before entering vocational education or job training–a sequential order implying that students who fail to complete remediation are denied entrance to vocational education and job training.

A final characteristic of the existing system is that there is almost no information about its activities and effectiveness. Some providers cannot even tell how many individuals are enrolled in remedial programs; almost none can provide any systematic information about completion rates (though they are clearly low); evaluations of subsequent effects are almost nonexistent, and most evaluations are methodologically flawed. The result is that there is almost no evidence to suggest which of the many programs now offered are effective and still less information that would enable teachers and researchers to improve current practice.

Effectiveness and Pedagogy

In the absence of direct evidence about which remedial efforts are effective, it is necessary to rely on indirect arguments. The consensus on good practice in adult education provides some guidance. The dominant teaching methods in remedial programs are those we describe as “skills and drills”–an approach which encompasses many assumptions about the classroom practices, the nature of individualization, the roles of teachers and students, the nature of learning as an individual and decontextualized activity, the nature of curriculum, and the sources of motivation. While these teaching methods are logical, internally consistent, apparently efficient, and well established at most levels of the educational system, their assumptions prove to violate many of the conventions of good practice in adult education. In addition, most individuals in remedial programs have failed to learn basic reading and math despite eight to twelve years of instruction in skills and drills within elementary and secondary schools; why the same approach should succeed for adults when it has previously failed is unclear. Indeed, it is all too plausible that the high dropout rates and paltry learning gains in most remediation efforts can be blamed partly on the dominant pedagogical methods.

The alternatives to skills and drills are difficult to describe precisely because they have not been codified or standardized. However, the approach we label “meaning-making” reverses the assumptions of skills and drills, leading to very different classroom practices, roles for teachers and students, and assumptions of curriculum. While it is difficult to find pure examples of meaning-making, many programs–especially in community colleges–can be described as eclectic, borrowing from both skills and drills and meaning-making as teachers experiment with alternatives appropriate to their adult students. In addition, functional context literacy training, which “integrates literacy training into technical training,” replaces the decontextualized content and methods of skills and drills with materials and exercises drawn from functional contexts–in most cases from the requirements of employment. However, functional context approaches have little to say about the other assumptions underlying teaching methods, and so can lead to programs that resemble meaning-making or programs that look like conventional remediation in almost all their details.

While programs integrating basic skill instruction and vocational training prove to be rare, a few provide distinct alternatives to skills and drills. Finally, it is possible to describe literacy programs based on meaning-making, though they are few and far between and their effectiveness is difficult to judge. However, they clarify that alternatives to the well-established practices of skills and drills can be developed, offering substantial promise in remedying some persistent problems in remediation–the motivational problem, the fact that many adults report skills and drills programs to be boring, the irrelevance of many programs to subsequent education or job training, the conclusion that most remedial efforts violate the conventional assumptions of good adult education, and the fact that many adults have previously failed to learn through skills and drills in the schools.

Directions for Future Policy

Virtually every administrator of remedial education forecasts increasing demand, and so reforms in the existing system are crucial to those who enroll, to the vocational education and job training programs who find themselves with underprepared students, and ultimately to employers and to the productivity of the economy. Several reforms can be undertaken without substantial increases in resources or institutional reconstruction. The first involves coordination and the current haphazard patterns of referrals among programs. Vocational education and job training programs should develop coherent policies about referrals to remedial programs to ensure that individuals are referred only to appropriate forms of remediation and to institutions of adequate quality. In addition, tracking mechanisms need to be developed to follow individuals among programs and prevent them from becoming lost in the system.

The intent of the first recommendation is to require programs to refer individuals only to effective remedial programs. This leads to a second recommendation: Given the near-complete absence of information about effectiveness, resources for evaluation need to be increased. Such results could not only prevent individuals from being referred to ineffective forms of education, but they could also provide information about improving instruction.
This leads naturally to a third recommendation: Given the dominance of methods based on skills and drills and the evidence against this approach, policymakers and administrators need to consider variations and improvements in teaching methods. We are convinced that substantial improvement in remediation will be impossible without moving to the more active forms of teaching associated with meaning-making. But whether these or other approaches to teaching adults are the most effective, our recommendation is that there needs to be much more experimentation with alternative pedagogies, along with evaluation designed to identify good practice.

Other reforms will require much more debate about what we as a nation require of our system of work-related education and training, including remedial education. The current discussions about deficiencies in the labor force do not clearly point out whether the underlying problem is one of basic academic skills, work habits, interpersonal abilities, “higher-order” capacities, or judgment. Another ambiguity involves who the beneficiaries of remedial efforts should be, and whether wage earners, employers with relatively low-skilled (and low-paid) jobs, or the economy as a whole is the target. If the problem is one of “higher-order” abilities, or interpersonal skills, or judgment, or a shift to a high-skill, high-productivity economy, then the current narrowly defined remedial programs–which generally confine themselves to low-level cognitive capacities–are wholly inadequate. From this vantage it may be necessary both to revise these programs substantially by providing much more intensive instruction, and to start the much more difficult reforms of reshaping the K-12 education system, changing the nature of teaching throughout the system and providing much more sophisticated (and expensive) forms of education to larger fractions of the population. These are reforms for the long run, of course, but they are unavoidable if we as a country are serious about developing a world-class labor force with capacities more sophisticated than simple reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Grubb, W. N., Kalman, J., Castellano, M., Brown, C., & Bradby, D. (1991, September). Readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic one more time: The role of remediation in vocational education and job training. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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