California community colleges' cautious experiment with accelerated remediation
A faculty-led group called the California Acceleration Project has helped 42 of the state’s community colleges offer redesigned, faster versions of remedial math and English tracks. But the group’s co-founders said they would be able to make much more progress if the University of California changed its transfer credit requirements.
Remedial courses are widely seen as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to improving college graduation rates, as few students who place into remediation ever earn a degree.
The problem is particularly severe for black and Hispanic students, who account for almost half of the California community college system’s total enrollment of 2.4 million.
More than 50 percent of black and Hispanic community college students place three or more levels below college mathematics, said Myra Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos College. And only 6 percent of those remedial students will complete a credit-bearing math course within three years of starting the first remedial course.
A key reason for abysmal pass rates is the length of remedial sequences, argue Snell and Katie Hern, an English instructor at Chabot College, which, like Los Medanos, is a two-year institution located in California.
“The lower down you start, the fewer students complete,” Hern said.
The two instructors decided to do something about the problem. In 2010 they founded the California Acceleration Project. Armed with research from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advanced of Teaching and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, they encouraged their peers to offer shorter remedial sequences in math and English.
In 2009 Snell created an accelerated algebra course she calls “Path2Stats.” The course seeks to prepare students for statistics. It includes some intermediate algebra, but left out the parts she and others deem nonessential for students to succeed in college-level statistics. Some experts think statistics, instead of algebra, is sufficient for students who are not majoring in science, engineering or mathematics.
Instead of a three- to four-semester remedial pipeline, Path2Stats is a single, 6-unit course that students can complete to move directly to the transfer-level, credit-bearing statistics.
Its results have been impressive (see graphic). Students who enrolled in it were more than four times as likely to complete college-level math as their peers in traditional remedial sequences.
Snell’s course became a model for instructors at other community colleges. Currently 21 of the colleges now offer pilot versions of courses that draw from her work. (A total of 42 California community colleges offer accelerated math or English courses.)
She also ran into resistance, however, mostly because of the transfer-credit prerequisites set by the UC System.
Pamela Burdman described the controversy in a report that LearningWorks, a California-based nonprofit group, released last week. Burdman, a Berkeley-based consultant, noted that the course was tripped up by UC requirements for transfer students, which say that college-level math courses must include intermediate algebra or its equivalent as a prerequisite.
California State University has similar transfer policies. But experts said Cal State's campuses are more flexible than UC’s on the intermediate algebra question.
Los Medanos listed Path2Stats as an alternative requirement. That worked fine until 2012, Burdman reported, when a UC official told the college that approval of the course for transfer purposes had been removed.
As a partial result of transfer worries, Los Medanos has been cautious about the number of sections of Snell’s course that it offers. And last year college officials tried to cut the course entirely. But students protested, and they brought it back.
Los Medanos now has three or four sections of Path2Stats each semester, said Snell, compared to 12 sections of intermediate algebra.
“Change is slow,” she said. “And politics with three faculty in three different systems is difficult.”
Beth Smith is a professor of mathematics at Grossmont College and president of the statewide Academic Senate for community colleges. She said the senate has not taken a position on UC’s view of Path2Stats.
Faculty members have a wide range of takes on accelerated math remediation, she said. Some love it while others worry about dropping intermediate algebra.
“The universities are trusting us to teach the students and prepare the students,” Smith said.
Relatively few California community college students transfer to UC, with the bulk going to Cal State. But the UC current transfer policies have still had a “chilling effect” on experimentation with remedial courses at the two-year level, said Hern.
“It makes it harder for us to encourage colleges to move forward,” she said.
The two faculty members said community college officials often call the California Acceleration Project to ask if the policies have changed. They tend to hold off on trying accelerated courses when told no.
Without the transfer policy, Hern predicted that all 112 of the state’s community colleges would offer accelerated remedial courses.
Even so, Path2Stats is still going strong. And the course and others like it can still work for transfer-bound students, thanks to a bit of a back-door approach. State policies allow students to “challenge” college-level course prerequisites if they succeed in credit-bearing math without taking intermediate algebra.
“We’ve been using that part of the education code to create a space for innovation,” Hern said. “Otherwise there would be no way to experiment.”
Related approaches to accelerated remediation are also taking off in California.
The Carnegie Foundation’s alternate sequences, dubbed Statway and Quantway, are being tried in California as well as 10 other states, according to Burdman’s report. And in Texas, all two-year institutions are working on a remedial math redesign, called the New Mathways Project, which draws heavily from Carnegie’s work.
Cal State has bestowed Statway with transfer-prerequisite status, according to officials in the state. UC does not, however.
Complete College America is a nonprofit group that is pushing changes to remedial education around the country, including some controversial state policies. The group supports the California Acceleration Project and Statway, said Bruce Vandal, its vice president. He said both are showing tremendous results in getting students to pass gateway statistics courses.
“We encourage the University of California to reconsider its decision on Path2Stats,” Vandal said via e-mail, and to "join the growing movement across the nation to redesign math pathways to ensure greater success in gateway math course and improved college completion.”
Vandal pointed to the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology, Purdue University and Indiana University, all of which now allow statistics or quantitative reasoning to serve as gateway courses that fulfill math requirements.
Barbara Illowsky, a math professor at De Anza College who oversees the California community college system’s basic skills initiative, said she applauds experimentation with alternative remedial pathways by the state’s two-year colleges.
“More and more faculty are realizing that statistics is a more useful terminal course than college algebra,” she said, “for many, many majors and many students.”