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The American way is sometimes confused

Ian Duckett has some telling advice for those who look enviously at the post-16 model of mass education as it is practised in the United States

Almost seven out of 10 university and college students in the United States are seen as being in need of remedial help and support in basic literacy and numeracy.

Teachers say the reasons for this lack of success include the over-management of what should be the developmental aspects of reading and writing and the lack of consistency when it comes to the assessment of these skills.

The US equivalents of core skills - or key skills, as Sir Ron Dearing calls them in the report of his 16-19 inquiry - have not yet proved a success. Nor are initiatives being wholeheartedly embraced by teachers, students or education managers.

Last month, I visited the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as part of a wider programme sponsored by the Post-Secondary International Network (PIN) to investigate core skills in the US. It had made the startling discovery that between 50 and 70 per cent of university and college students need remedial and developmental support.

Community colleges in the United States have the same social and economic pressures as further education colleges in the United Kingdom. There too, the world of business determines what skills the workforce needs and colleges serve up a menu of training in them.

In the US, these appear in the guise of "developmental skills" (these are basic top-up skills to help students on to a course) - basic writing techniques and, more recently, Work Keys and Service Learning.

Work Keys - the jargon emanates from the much-criticised US Work Fare - is a national initiative for teaching and assessing the workplace skills which link theory to practice. They equate closely to the core skills in the UK for general national vocational qualifications: communication, application of number, information technology, teamwork, self- study, problem solving and improving one's learning and performance.

Service Learning (from the same jargon house) is a method through which citizenship, academic subjects, skills and values are taught. It involves active learning - drawing lessons from work done outside college such as community work and voluntary service.

This learning draws heavily on what we term personal skills - teamwork and improving one's own learning and performance.

Given the number of students reckoned to need remedial or developmental support, it is small wonder that so much time, money and energy are being invested in the two initiatives, Work Keys and Service Learning.

But it is highly questionable how effective they will be. Diagnostic testing is widely used to assess the range of special needs, and other needs, of students joining a course. As in the UK, diagnosing or identifying such need brings with it extra government cash.

In the US, the assessments are known as "placement tests" because if a student scores, say, 60 per cent on one of these tests then he or she is entitled to do any course which fits this grade. It is not unusual for the tests to result in bizarre discrepancies when it comes to assessing a student's level of ability.

At Allegheny County, students ended up in a basic writing class while also being placed in advanced group for reading and study skills. One student I observed was Jim, a 19-year-old former school refuser. He turned up in two classes, basic writing techniques and advanced reading and study skills. His teacher explained that students who "get lucky" in diagnostic test could insist on attending higher-level courses than they were ready for.This was not unique to the college.

Results of diagnostic testing of individuals can also vary markedly depending on where the students are placed. Where developmental skills are taught through "blocks", such as the women's block or an ethnic grouping, students can consistently perform half point better than counterparts who have taken writing courses on the more conventional track.

Dorothy is an example of the value of this programme. She enrolled on the Women's "block" in 1994 and is now on the verge of a degree course at Pittsburgh University and an active volunteer in the college centre for promoting student life for young mothers and black people.

But while the teething problems besetting reading and study skills programmes in American community colleges are undeniable, the schemes have their strengths - some of which already feature in UK college programmes.

The programmes have some similar features to free-standing core skills like the UK Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN), an FE programme set up to promote community action work experience and core skills.

A typical reading and study skills course, such as that at the college in Allegheny County, is designed to enable students to develop the reading and academic strategies necessary to succeed at college level. The course focuses on reading and reasoning and promotes the acquisition of effective study skills.

At CCAC, just as in many British FE colleges, the practice is to integrate key learning skills into the curriculum. Course objectives include "students appreciate literature through critical reading, thinking, writing and discussion" and "to increase student skill in sharing ideas and working with others".

In the US, community colleges are concerned with the nationally important task of preparing young people for a working life and the growing emphasis on core skills is a major preoccupation in much the same way as it is in the UK FE sector. But we must not make the same mistakes.

Ian Duckett lectures at Barnet College, London

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