Going to the Root of the Problem
A group of community colleges in Tennessee is going into local high schools to try to help more students get ready for college math. The experiment has showed impressive early results, and now the state’s governor is forking over serious money to expand it.
The four community colleges have worked with teachers at local high schools to run math labs for 600 high school seniors who appeared likely to place into remedial tracks after high school.
Pass rates have been high. For example, 83 percent of a group of 200 students in the remedial, dual-enrollment group at Chattanooga State Community College completed all of the college’s required math “competencies” during their senior year of high school.
Even better, 25 percent of those students completed a credit-bearing, college-level math course while still in high school (remedial math is typically noncredit). These were also students who scored a 19 or below on the ACT Mathematics Test as high school juniors, meaning they had deficiencies in the subject.
“They were completely done with math before they even started” college, said Kimberly G. McCormick, interim associate vice president for academic affairs at Chattanooga State.
Bill Haslam, the state’s Republican governor, caught wind of the project. He then spent $1.1 million on it from a state college-completion fund (dubbed “Drive to 55” after his goal for 55 percent of Tennesseans to hold a college degree or certificate by 2025).
That money has allowed 114 high schools and all 13 of the state’s community colleges to participate. More than 6,500 high school students are taking remedial math this year as part of the project.
Officials in Tennessee aren’t stopping there.
“This could be at every high school in the state,” said Richard G. Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
'Not Just Talk'
Remediation is perhaps the biggest barrier to improving the nation’s college graduation rates. Only one-quarter of students who place into remedial math, writing or English courses will earn a credential within eight years.
Lawmakers in several states have grown frustrated with colleges’ inability to make progress on the problem.
In Connecticut a new law essentially eliminated remediation by requiring colleges to place students with remedial needs into regular credit-bearing courses. (One remedial course is still allowed.) The idea in this approach, which advocates call the co-requisite model, is for remedial students to get extra help as they work alongside their college-ready peers.
Changes are also afoot in Florida. Recently-approved legislation in the state gives community college the choice of skipping remediation, even if college advisers or placement tests say they have remedial needs. Also, all recent high school graduates in Florida are deemed college-ready and do not need to take placement tests when they enroll.
Both reforms are controversial. Some critics say lawmakers, even if well-meaning, are pushing ham-handed ideas that might actually make the problem worse. And neither state has funneled new money to remedial fixes.
Tennessee is a different story. Community college leaders said Haslam has worked with them to identify promising solutions and then encouraged them with meaningful financial support.
“It’s a real commitment,” McCormick said. “This is not just talk.”
The state has gotten plenty of attention for its approach to performance-based funding in higher education. President Obama’s recently announced plan for a federal version of performance funding appears to lift a few pages from Tennessee’s playbook.
The feds also might want to take a look at how the state is tackling remediation, said higher education leaders there.
Stan Jones agrees. Jones, the president of Complete College America, a nonprofit group that has been a driving force of state-level policies on remediation, said the state’s pilot program has “great promise.” He said it could boost completion rates by ensuring that more high school students are ready for college.
The project began with just one high school class.
Chattanooga State has had success with dual enrollment programs, officials there said. Fully 20 percent of its students are still in high school.
Building on that experience, the college three years ago started collaborating with the nearby Red Bank High School on remedial math. With Chattanooga State’s help, a math teacher there, Deborah Weiss, began a remedial math lab with a single class section.
Weiss used Pearson’s MyMathLab courseware for a flipped, or hybrid online, style of teaching. Many colleges tap MyMathLab for “modular” remedial courses that don’t resemble a traditional math class. There are no lectures. Students work at their own speed to master competencies. Instructors help them on a one-on-one basis.
The class was “wildly successful,” McCormick said. So the college applied for a grant to create a broader pilot project. The college got $100,000 from the state to teach remedial math to 600 dual-enrolled students at high schools near four two-year institutions, including Northeast State, Cleveland State and Jackson State Community Colleges as well as Chattanooga State.
The community colleges helped high school teachers use the Pearson courseware. That can be an adjustment, college leaders said, and required some training.
The help didn’t stop after a training program, however. The four colleges provided 14 roving “field coordinators” to pop by participating high schools whenever help was needed.
The field coordinators, who are college employees, helped with everything from running the software to class scheduling and teaching approaches. They were also able to oversee the academic progress of cohorts and individual students, which allowed them to suggest targeted interventions.
“They’re like a second layer of support for the students,” said Robert M. Denn, dean of school relations and university articulation at Chattanooga State. Denn is director of the project, which is called the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) program.
The state has set a standard of five core competencies in remedial math. That uniformity has helped as colleges work with their high schools on remediation, said Mike Krause, assistant executive director for academic affairs at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, in part by sending clear messages to students about which concepts they need to master.
The 6,500 high school students currently enrolled in the program represent about 10 percent of Tennessee’s senior class. Another 1,000 or so will join in the spring.
McCormick said they have received rave reviews so far. “It’s working beautifully,” she said. “The students really enjoy it.”
Students can log onto the courseware from home, said Denn, as can their parents. And the modular approach means less paperwork for teachers, who can focus instead on working with students.
“They get to be teachers,” he said.
The state, like most, has plenty of ground to cover on remediation. Roughly 70 percent of community college students in Tennessee arrive with remedial math needs. But community college leaders think the dual-enrollment approach can make a big dent in the problem. And the governor appears to agree.
There are no guarantees, observers said, but more money may be coming. Haslam signaled support for a three-year remedial math project. The goal is to reach 15,000 high school students next year.
“This is just the beginning,” said McCormick.