California state legislators, in passing Assembly Bill 705, thrust most students at California community colleges into a one-size-fits-all learning vacuum that devalues diversity and ignores the variety of our students’ circumstances.
And now, through proposed Assembly Bill 1705, legislators threaten to eliminate all preparatory instruction to college-level English, regardless of students’ educational needs.
If legislators get their way, a community college district may no longer offer, even at the preference of the student, a preparatory level of English instruction – because if there is one shared assumption among all college English professors, it is that 100% of all high school graduates are eminently prepared for the rigors of college composition and should, therefore, all be forced – yes, forced – to enroll in a course with the same expectations.
No academic option for gaining more fundamental writing skills. No alternative approach to learning. No student choice. Why, you may ask, deny students even the choice to take a preparatory course? Because clearly, none of them need it, or want it – or ever will!
Not convinced by this state-sanctioned dogma? Well, fear not. A student’s chances of success in college composition are markedly greater now because including students of all levels of writing competency in a single transfer-level course predictably leads to a lowering of academic standards.
English teachers, if only intuitively, grade in consideration of the average written performance of their students. This is called “norming,” and the new college “normal” is startlingly remedial. Since we teach to the median competency of our students and since including students of all levels of writing competency in a single course requires a lower median to which we must teach – we now teach to a new “middle,” and a new average emerges, one significantly lower than its original.
As a result, we bloat our students’ sense of accomplishment because less can be accomplished in our courses now. More students meet expectations for “success” because less can be expected of them now. Because the state has put so much pressure on colleges and faculty to increase their student success rates in classes filled with unprecedented numbers of unprepared students, lowered expectations are inevitable.
Fresno City College instructor Rosemarie Bezerra-Nader, author of “AB 705 and Its Unintended Consequences,” noted in 2020 the threat the law poses to course standards: “AB 705 monetarily rewards colleges for increasing the number of students who complete transfer English and math classes within one year. … With concern for job security and their families, instructors may succumb to subtle or direct pressure to increase passing rates by diluting content.”
I am one of those English faculty attempting to resist the diluting of content and the lowering of academic standards, but I know full well it is a fight that I will lose – even though I try to resist it every time I grade a stack of increasingly incoherent essays, every time students complain that I am a “tough grader,” every time an administrator hints that the “success rates” of my students may not be on par with those of my peers. AB 705 has devalued what colleges mean by “student success.” Bezerra-Nader warns, “Success rates resulting from superficial definitions of success diminish the real, long-term value of classes and contribute to students’ poor self-esteem, poor performance, and failure in the workplace.”
As my friend and former colleague from Yuba College, John Almy, explained in his 2017 article published in Inside Higher Education, “You do not accelerate people who do not know the basics. You slow down and teach them what they desperately need to know, including how to earn the right to join the community of scholars so that they can take pride in their accomplishments and believe that for once they truly belong.”
Those who are hurt most, ironically, are the very students that the apologists of AB 705 claim to support: the disproportionately impacted, the underserved, those who require additional instruction and more assistance. “While equity may have been the goal of AB 705,” Bezzera-Nader notes, “the bill devalued diversity and the role community colleges have traditionally played for returning students.” AB 705 assumes that “all students are able to earn degrees within two years (and) that they all want to earn degrees,” she continues. “The needs of students across California vary dramatically, and the implementation of AB 705 has created inequitable situations for students in a variety of circumstances.”
As English professors succumb to the pressure to “increase student success” and to the disingenuous calls for greater “equity” that echo incessantly without any viable means to support it, we are befuddled into an academic compromise for which the state eagerly offers absolution – and post hoc rationalization.
Advocates and apologists continue to promise growing completion rates, pontificating the absurd post hoc ergo propter hoc notion that, any increase in “success” will be the sole result of having thrown all students into a one-room-schoolhouse approach to learning. Of course, it will have nothing to do with the inevitable lowering of standards that this teaching paradigm necessitates or the financial pressure placed on institutions and faculty by the state. To admit this would be to deny the religious orthodoxy of acceleration. It would be to admit that education has profoundly failed our state legislators – who, in turn, are ensuring that it fails all future generations in California.
Unsatisfied with the detrimental effects of AB 705, the state legislature is now considering an even greater threat to higher education: AB 1705. If it passes the Assembly by May, it will move onto the Senate and likely become law. It will force transfer-level enrollment for the vast majority of our students, no matter their specific educational needs. It will require transfer-level English requirements for every program, including Career Technical Education programs and certificates, and it will eliminate access to pre-transfer courses, which will negatively affect enrollment as well as student success.
The Faculty Association of California Community Colleges opposes this bill. Please make a public comment opposing AB 1705 at the Assembly Higher Education Committee hearing on Tuesday, April 26, at 1:30 p.m.
Brian Jukes lives in Yuba City and teaches as a tenured English faculty member at Yuba College.