“Accelerated Learning”: Bullet Train to Success or Oxymoron?

David Clemens

  • Article
  • June 27, 2012

Last week, I moderated a Young Rhetoricians’ Conference panel titled “'Do You Believe in Magic?’ Remixing Accelerated Courses.” 

Exactly what is “acceleration”? I had read some literature on it and heard a good deal about it at the conference. But despite all the buzz about acceleration, I couldn’t determine whether it is a management idea, an economic idea, a social uplift idea, a triage idea, an educational idea, or a monetized theoretical idea. 

  • As a management idea, acceleration can certainly be a tool for downsizing and cutting costs. 
  • As an economic idea, it can reduce the amount of education welfare expended on those riding the remediation merry-go-round.
  • As a social uplift idea, some feel that acceleration eliminates various racial injustices associated with standardized placement testing and makes it easier and faster to earn a college degree.
  • Unfortunately, acceleration might instead become a triage idea because even with the best intentions of “social justice,” acceleration might really just eliminate weak students more quickly. 
  • Or, accelerating remediation might necessitate defining down academic success as the equivalent to completion, which negates the educational idea.  Notably absent from what I read, heard, and saw was much mention of content.  What I did hear about is groups, games, and music, all of which sounds suspiciously like Sesame Street for adults. 
  • Finally, the monetized theoretical idea.  One goose that always lays golden eggs is inventing and promoting education fads.  From Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, there seems no way around the evidence that despite our “data rich” environment, students arrive (and graduate) knowing less and less.  Katie Hern of the California Acceleration Project says that last year 92% of Chabot Community College’s students were not college-ready
This unpreparedness isn’t new, of course; it’s just a lot worse, despite the many attempts to correct the downward spiral: Total Quality Management, Outcomes Based Education, Whole Language, emancipatory education, Students’ Right to Their Own Language, the critical thinking movement, PowerPoint presentations, clickers, SLOs, the self-esteem movement, multiple intelligences, multiple learning styles, No Student Left Behind, learning communities, Basic Skills Initiative, Race to the Top. And for all that, the mercury still sinks in the mouth of education’s dying day (h/t W.H. Auden).  We have a higher education bubble that’s ready to burst, says Glenn Reynolds: college costs too much, creates too much debt, and provides too little of value.  Something, everything, is not working. But until theories are finally crushed by reality, hope thrives as a commodity and promoters can profit from publishers, training workshops, stipends, and grants, grants, grants.
Alarm bells went off for me when I failed to find a consistent definition of what “acceleration” is.  In one video, when participants at an acceleration workshop were asked what acceleration means, each one provided a different definition.  Nor could my panelists offer more than a vague impression of what acceleration is, although they were all sure that it works.  Currently, acceleration seems to be applied most often to remediation—in English, Math, and ESL, although various heavyweights such as the Lumina and Gates foundations would like all students to succeed faster.  Of course, there is no consistent definition of what “succeed” means, either.  And there appear to be multiple models of acceleration: weekly counseling; four hours in class per day, four days per week; flipping in and out of class work; and slimmed down curriculum, such as the Los Medanos Community College’s “Path2stats,” a statistics course accelerated by deleting so many topics that the University of California threatened to un-articulate it.      

But perhaps we are asking the wrong question.  Instead of “how can colleges do more efficient and successful remediation?” maybe the real question is “why should colleges do remediation at all?”  Why do colleges and universities maintain extensive and expensive machinery and personnel for remediation of students who have already and persistently failed at high school, junior high school, even elementary school skills?  Why do colleges pay Ph. D. and Ed. D. rates to deliver elementary school education?  Why are colleges so deeply invested in doing what is clearly NOT college?  These are the questions that taxpayers should be asking.  Is accelerated remediation the answer to this conundrum?  The data for the success of any remediation at all is ambiguous and supports contradictory interpretationsEvidence for the efficacy of accelerated remediation is similarly shallow, preliminary, often metaphorical, and frequently anecdotal. 

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “accelerate” means “to move faster,” like speed reading and speed dating, neither of which I would recommend.  Nor can I recommend the Accelerated Reader program, which teaches students to accelerate but to not read deeply, critically, appreciatively, or analytically.  Another stab at acceleration is the Khan Academy, where a History of the United States tutorial video covers the period from the beginning of World War Two through the Vietnam War . . . in 14 minutes.  That’s not acceleration, that’s embarrassing.  Such highlight-reel approaches to education have led to degrees that employers realize signify nothing other than gluteal fortitude.  

Hern, who argues that “placement is fate,” notes how few students who start three levels below college ever eventually emerge from a real, if watered down, college course. But her solution is, therefore, to eliminate the courses two and three levels below college, as well as the placement tests that identify such students. Her reasoning suggests that remedial classes are filled with eager, capable students, victimized by unfair tests, who, frustrated or discouraged by repetition, avail themselves of multiple “exit points.” That’s the problem—too many escape hatches from purgatory! But Hern’s assumptions about why students attend college are not entirely correct.  Some students are in college to pick up financial aid checks at Fiscal Services, some to maintain athletic eligibility, others to sponge off college facilities and equipment. Current Student Success Task Force, Little Hoover Commission, and Legislative thinking is that college is all about workforce preparedness and the sooner the better.  Certainly, some students are trying to acquire job skills (in case there ever are jobs again).   

I may sound skeptical about accelerating remediation, but I was just as skeptical 20 years ago watching the construction of the remediation labyrinth. One dubious colleague called it “The Great Mitosis” as remediation crusaders split bonehead English into bonehead reading and bonehead writing, and the downhill race was on.  Each course became two courses, then new courses, new and lower levels, more teaching load credit, an English Skills Center, a Math Skills Center, a Reading Center, a Lindamood-Bell Center, a Tutorial Center, a $20,000 a year Basic Skills Initiative Coordinator . . . .  Today, students’ financial aid now can run out before they ever reach college level (such as it is).  The new thinking is a back-to-the-future approach of accelerating learning by collapsing all those levels and integrating reading and writing, just like the old days but with speedy, pervasive computing.  So acceleration just might be the ticket…but to where?  California Governor Jerry Brown’s current shiny object is building a bullet train up and down the San Joaquin Valley—Merced to Stockton in 29 minutes, whoosh!  Of course, then you are...in Stockton.  Like Governor Brown’s train, educational acceleration also may go nowhere, but at least it will go nowhere really, really fast.

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