Two Strikes and You’re Out: The Impact of Executive Order #665 on Developmental Writing and Mathematics by Glen McClish
The California State University’s Executive Order 665, mandating all first-year students to complete their remedial or developmental course work in math and writing by the end of their first year or risk “disenrollment,” took effect in Fall 1998, a year before I arrived at San Diego State University as the new chair of Rhetoric and Writing Studies and General Math Studies. In my new capacity, I inherited oversight of all developmental courses taught by the University, which means that I keep the gate that thousands of students will pass—or, in many cases, not pass—through to the second year of college and beyond.
Since I wasn’t on the job from the beginning of the Order, I was frequently witnessed to by more senior members of the Department and the University. The tale assumed biblical proportions. For proponents of the Order, this is a story of accountability, of salvation from a remedial Babylon in which students squandered their educations and their souls by not facing up to their academic shortcomings. 665 brought them to the promised land of writing and mathematical competency in two short semesters, or—if they were not members of the elect—cast them out to wherever they will go—with considerable gnashing of teeth.
For opponents of the Order, the narrative harkens back to a lost Eden, a prelapsarian paradise in which students were allowed the time needed to get up to speed in these basic areas of education. No panic, no arbitrary cutoffs and deadlines—just plenty of time to get the job done. The one-size-fits-all mandate of 665 shook all the apples from the tree of knowledge, and a lot of rotten fruit hit us on the heads. Cast from the garden to inhabit the world of 665—add one and you get the picture—they yearn for a lost innocence.
These stories are complicated by the fact that different institutions throughout the CSU treat those unable to complete remediation within the one-year limit differently. Whereas at some campuses, a majority of these students are allowed to continue, at a school such as SDSU, only a very small number are permitted to proceed. And what constitutes the first year also varies. At some campuses, the summer after the first spring is an option. At SDSU, however, the spring semester is the end of the line. Some of our students, in fact, face an even earlier deadline. Our administration mandates that certain local admits—who are eligible to attend the California State University but who have not met the higher SDSU criteria—must begin their remedial work in the summer and complete it by the fall. To further complicate matters, students who come in as transfers operate under much more relaxed rules. Although there are registration penalties for not completing remedial course work promptly, there is no threat of disenrollement.
Both versions of the 665 story have validity. As those who decry the Order assert, students come to the University differently prepared. In particular, students who hale from ESL backgrounds and/or from challenged high schools need more time to develop their basic competencies, a reality that EO 665 ignores. It is no surprise that the ethnic diversity of our developmental courses is particularly rich. 665 pushes such students into a speed-learning routine inappropriate for true mastery. Students who require three semesters to get up to speed in math are especially vulnerable, because the timetable allows for only two.
The scheduling associated with 665 is challenging because every student must be placed, yet sections must not dip below the breakeven point. Thus, unless you schedule exactly the right number of sections at just the right times, you’ll have unplaced students—who complicate the one-year probationary period and infuriate administrators—or unfilled classes—which are expensive and infuriate administrators. The only way to achieve the golden mean is to complete your hiring of part-time lecturers at the very last minute. Well into the first week of classes, in fact, I’m still compressing classes here and adding them there. Such manipulations are stressful and time consuming for staff and unaccommodating for part-time lecturers, who do not deserve living with such uncertainty. Despite my best efforts to communicate to my faculty the inevitability of such scheduling, I know many of them are convinced I’m feckless. I don’t blame them, but I hate to see their morale diminish, and my credibility in the process.
On the other hand, the old way, which allowed for easy scheduling of classes and which gave students virtually unlimited time to pass basic math and writing courses, encouraged procrastination and half-hearted efforts. Why be saved today? There’s always tomorrow. Many students who put passing their remedial courses off until the last minute conduct their educations backwards, putting the basic competencies last. Clearly, this makes no sense to anyone but them. Scaring the hell out of people has its rewards.
Aside from learning to tell stories, I have gleaned a few lessons from my experience with the Beast. First, I value the close ties with my counterparts in developmental math. The historical accident that caused SDSU’s basic math courses to reside in the same administrative unit as its writing courses has allowed us to share information, strategize together, console one another, commiserate, and to build mutual respect. If you find yourself in a similar institutional situation, I recommend establishing ties with your allies across the disciplines.
Similarly, I’ve learned the benefit of linking developmental writing administration with university-level writing courses. Because all our writing programs call our department home, our staffing flexibility increases, and we’re able to share knowledge and resources. For example, we’ve created a special hybrid course that allows students who narrowly miss placement into a university-level writing course to fulfil their debt to remediation and complete the first semester of university writing simultaneously. My experience at SDSU has persuaded me that most efforts to divide writing programs are misguided.
I must also tout the recent growth in university-high school partnerships designed to enhance pre-collegiate curriculum. Our instructors have been increasingly involved in the local high and middle schools. The official goal of such collaboration is improved test scores, but I’m far more excited about broader, less tangible results.
Whether the current order is viewed as heaven sent or devilish, it is the Gospel of self-reliance that resonates most clearly—the simple fact is that this University and others like it help those who help themselves. My gifted, highly dedicated math and writing instructors every day impress me with their commitment to developmental students and their special needs, but the system in which we function requires students to take control of their educations. Surely academic preparation predicts success, but the single most important variable is student willingness to assume responsibility. Every semester, bewildered, angry students—sometimes led by their parents—storm into my office and ask me what I’m going to do to fix their lives. Ultimately, I turn the question back to them: “How will you solve your problem? The university has bet you a college degree that you can’t develop basic competencies in one year. Here are your options—are you willing to act? Take the reins, or they will take you.”