communitycolleges

Why teaching developmental English breaks my heart (essay)

His name was Bobby. He sat in the front row. He paid attention and asked smart questions; he engaged his classmates in debate. He wrote his first paper about pistol-whipping another 20-something in his trailer park over a drug deal. Bobby had so many stories. He wrote about rescuing a woman after she had been raped by a neighbor. He wrote about being homeless after he left gang life. He rode a beat-up bicycle five miles one way to the college in all types of Minnesota weather, then sat wet and shivering in the front row, his hoodie pulled over his head. In late November his girlfriend gave birth, and all we had left to remind us of Bobby was that empty front-row seat.

Next came TJ. He dressed like Eminem and sported white sneakers, floppy and unlaced. He smelled funny, an overpowering bodily odor that I would learn to recognize as meth recovery. His classmates avoided being put into groups with him; they gave him space around the table. Between classes, he chain-smoked in the courtyard. When he visited me during office hours, his hands shook from nicotine.

TJ wrote about dropping out of school to join a circus. He had worked as a carnie and developed a nasty addiction. TJ wrote intoxicatingly about his past; he wrote convincingly about his new, sober life. He had no license, so his grandmother drove him to and from campus. But she was afraid to drive in snow or sleet, so TJ missed a lot of class.

TJ brought me an early draft of his essay to read. He also brought along his notebook from last semester’s remedial writing course, in which he had taken copious notes. He referred to those notes as he explained what he knew about paragraph structure, thesis placement, and the use of examples. We discussed voice shifts, tense shifts, and where to break up paragraphs. I encouraged him to visit the writing center, which I direct, and a tutor discussed his second draft with him.

The day I handed back these papers, he walked in late and slid into the back row. I walked to the rear of the room, still talking, and handed him a paper with a large blue A- circled at the top. I was already back at my teaching console, showing items on the course website, when TJ approached shyly and stopped me in mid-sentence by holding up his paper.

“Is this my grade?” he asked.

“Yes, TJ, that’s your grade,” I replied.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, TJ, you earned that grade through hard work and good revision,” I said, loud enough for the class to hear.

We all watched TJ walk, beaming, back down the aisle to his seat. TJ was my model developmental writing student. But three weeks later, he vanished from my class.

I have 60 to 80 developmental writing students in my classes each term; many of them lead precarious lives. They come to me, to college, to the hope of a brighter future, but they are wounded and vulnerable and unprepared. They lack self-confidence in general; they lack academic confidence in particular. And if one thing tips the scale out of balance in their precarious lives, they will disappear.

I lie awake at night, worrying about them. Not them collectively, as one-third are doing fine and another third are squeaking by. It’s the final third, the vulnerable ones, that rob me of sleep.

As a lifelong educator, I used to worry about paper-grading burnout. Now that my teaching load is largely remedial English, I worry more about emotional burnout: the accumulated psychological toll of caring for so many.

Because the more I care about my students, the more they break my heart.

I wish that I knew less about them, that they could simply be students to me. But the best subject matter for fledgling writers is their own lives, and my students love to tell their stories. While my colleagues in other departments are feeding multiple choice bubble sheets into Scantron machines or ticking off points for math equations, I am scribbling comments in the margins of my students’ papers. I am writing things like, “Do you know how to get a restraining order? Please ask me; I will help you” and “Here’s the counseling #. Ask for Robert.”

I am also writing letters and emails, to both these students and their advisers. I am seeking student services and support agencies for them. I am trying to put a finger in every hole in the dikes of their lives so that they can stay in my class, they can learn, they can move on to college level English and the rest of their lives.

I am teaching the disciplinary material which I was trained to teach, but I am also serving as a life coach, student success skills instructor, and amateur therapist, and I have no training in these areas.

Jeff is my latest heartbreak. The last day he came to my class was a much-publicized workshop day, and I was unhappy with him for arriving without his draft. When I asked him to retrieve it from his car, he stood up and nearly keeled over. He told us he felt funny, he felt tired; he slurred his words and the sentences trailed off. His classmates looked frightened. I told him to forget about the writing assignment and go see the school nurse. I wish so badly that I had walked him to the nurse’s office myself. He never went there. But she followed up, on my request, and has since told me that he is “under the care of mental health professionals.”

I will never forget the shock on TJ’s face, followed by intense pleasure, when I confirmed his A-.

Am I the only person to ever recognize TJ’s academic aptitude, to ever tell him that he did a good job? I hope not. But so many of my remedial students hover on the brink of “I can’t do this” that I work mightily to find qualities to praise, to point out aptitudes, even as I tough-love them with sentence structure, journaling, grammar quizzes.

I cannot say that these students disappear from the world; rather, they cease to attend my class. They are still members of my community. I saw Bobby in Walmart last spring, looking as happy-go-lucky as ever, as his friends shoplifted.

TJ may be the man putting my child on a carnival ride at next summer’s county fair. Even if my female student does get that restraining order I mentioned in the margin of her last draft, she could still become a city statistic, another assault victim or death.

I live with my students perpetually on my mind. I worry about the stories that they’re not telling me. Sometimes, teaching them how to write college essays seems trite in comparison with the other challenges of their daily lives. I wish I could pour the knowledge into their brains, test them on it, and go home. I wish I could see them simply as students.

I know the way out of my dilemma. I could go back to teaching courses with names like Writing Poetry and Women’s Perspectives.

I could teach the students who are college-ready, who passed that arbitrary, high-stakes placement test, or who have already schlepped their way through a remedial course like mine.

But then who would encourage John to get tested for dyslexia? Who would ask my Hmong student about her pregnancy, or my Somali student about her father’s heart surgery? Who would watch the 30-year-old veteran’s face for signs of anxiety and reassure him?

When I was a graduate student, teaching freshman comp, I used to walk home each day, asking myself one question: “Did I do a good job?”

At the end of a day teaching remedial English, I still ask myself one question, and it’s always the same one: “Did I do enough?”

Pam Whitfield is an English and equine science instructor and writing coordinator at Rochester Community and Technical College, in Minnesota.

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Helping Transfer Students Succeed

Low-income community college students who transfer to highly selective four-year institutions can succeed academically if they receive adequate financial aid, according to an analysis by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation's Community College Transfer Initiative. The foundation has funded transfer support efforts at 14 selective institutions during the past eight years. The analysis found that community college transfer students collectively maintained a 3.0 GPA while enrolled at four-year institutions, became campus leaders and made it to graduation.

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From Community College to Law School in California

California's community college system today will announce the creation of a smoother pathway for students from 24 of the state's community colleges to eventually gain entry to six law schools in California. The agreement, which was brokered by the State Bar of California, will provide law school-related resources to students at two-year institutions, including financial aid counseling, academic advising and LSAT prep. And the six participating law schools -- which include ones based at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Davis -- agreed to waive application fees and take various other steps to increase the pipeline of community college students.

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Portmont College and Mount St. Mary's chart new territory with online associate programs

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Mount St. Mary's still has high hopes for Portmont College, a new online subsidiary, after partner foundation goes belly-up.

Transfer After First Earning an Associate Degree

Community college students who earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution are more likely to earn a bachelor's degree than their peers who transfer without one, according to new research from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. After controlling for background characteristics, the study found that transfer students with associate degrees were 49 percent more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within four years, and 22 percent more likely to earn one within six years.

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Essay says remedial reform efforts face serious limitations

Members of the professional community in developmental education agree with many studies suggesting that simply placing students in remedial courses is an inadequate response to the problems of underpreparedness among entering college students. They would further tend to agree that the current process of identifying and placing underprepared students is flawed and that the entire process of assessing, advising and teaching them needs reform.

But if there is a “solution” to the remediation education “problem,” it is vastly more complex than many reform advocates and most policy makers acknowledge.

It will require that community colleges change the way they do remediation. It will also require that they address non-academic issues that may prevent students from succeeding, improve the quality of instruction at all levels, revise financial aid policies, provide better advising to students at risk, integrate instruction and support services, teach college success skills, invest in professional development and do all of these things in a systematic manner integrated into the mainstream of the institution.

It may be useful for reformers to collaborate with the developmental education professional community, a community that has not only supported but invented many of the innovations reformers have proposed.  Instead many policy makers are ignoring these professionals and requiring colleges to adopt unproven innovations disconnected from institutional systems or existing innovations. .

Policy makers often fail to understand that the majority of remedial courses are taught by adjunct faculty who, although they may possess content expertise, often have no idea how to teach underprepared students. Many of them do not understand the principles of adult learning and development and they are offered no support or training to help them learn techniques to teach these students. Although learning laboratories, tutoring and other support services are often available, few systematic efforts are made to ensure that those enrolled in remedial courses participate in them. The services designed to help students succeed in course work are seldom integrated into the courses they are supposed to support. In addition to this, underprepared students are often placed in some sort of computer-based or online remedial course, frequently without assessing their levels of computer access or literacy.

During the past decade, several research studies of varying quality have indicated this model of remediation doesn’t work -- that too few students complete it -- and those who do often fail to graduate. This has stimulated a nationwide discussion of remediation and a large number of foundation-funded initiatives to reform it.

Historically, reform efforts in remediation have been only moderately effective. Much of this is due to the fact that alternative models were thought to be too expensive and more labor-intensive than the traditional remedial model.  Given the limited funding with which most community colleges operate, those thoughts were probably accurate. Furthermore, many community college leaders had no idea how poorly remediation was working and there were few incentives to find out. It was only after various groups began to measure the outcomes of remediation during the early years of the 21st century that we realized the poverty of those outcomes. Encouraged and supported by foundation funding, colleges across the country then began to experiment with new ways of providing remediation to the large numbers of students who needed it to be successful.

Meanwhile, new players entered the remediation reform game, usually without consulting any of those who were already advocating the reform of remediation. These new players included policy makers, foundation officers, politicians and organizations that sustained themselves with government and foundation grants -- few of them with any knowledge of or experience with underprepared students. Some of these individuals and organizations began the scientific study of remediation in an attempt to find data that might provide pathways to more successful remediation. Others simply announced that they had found the pathways.

The reformers have provided policy makers with an array of proposed solutions possessing various degrees of promise, research support and likelihood of success. The fact that there is often little research evidence supporting the proposed solutions appears not to bother either the policy advocates or the state legislators they lobby. There are two other major shortcomings with contemporary reform efforts in remediation. The first is that most reform advocates are promoting piecemeal, non-systematic change. The second is that none of the proposed reforms address the underlying causes of poor performance among underprepared students.

Many contemporary reformers are promoting specific techniques such as embedded support services, modular instruction, contextualized instruction, computer based instruction or accelerated remedial courses. Some are even advocating that remedial courses be eliminated entirely and replaced with these techniques. What these reform efforts fail to acknowledge, but what experts in the field know well, is that no innovation is going to be successful in a community college unless the institutional system into which it is being introduced also changes. There are those who contend that remediation is broken and needs to be abandoned. Equally likely, the campus system in which remediation takes place is broken and simply adding an innovation to the system or removing remedial courses from it will not fix anything.

Most community colleges do not have the resources to do the sort of intrusive academic advising needed by underprepared students. Academic support services in the community colleges are not systematically connected to the courses they are supposed to support. There is little focused faculty development for those working with underprepared students. The system provides few rewards for working effectively with underprepared students. There is insufficient communication between those who teach remedial courses and those who teach college-level courses. There are, of course, some exceptions to these circumstances, but they exist only at a minority of community colleges. Innovations introduced into environments such as described here are unlikely to be successful because the environment itself mitigates against success.

Furthermore, many of the proposed innovations fail to address the conditions that cause students to be underprepared. There is a naïve assumption among many policy makers that if we just find different ways of presenting the material to students, they will do well in college. If we are to increase success rates for underprepared students, we will also need to address the reasons why minorities and the poor and first-generation students perform poorly in the first place.

If policy makers are so convinced that they have a solution to remediation, then they should at least have the integrity to build evaluation plans into their policies and reforms. Ongoing systematic evaluation is a critical component of successful innovation which has been advocated in the field of developmental education for over two decades. If it turns out that the policies and reforms are successful, there will be proof that others can use to improve their programs. If it turns out that they are not, then the evaluation data can be used to inform the revisions of policies and innovations.

Thus far, few policy makers have bothered to build evaluation plans into their reform plans. In so doing, they are making the same mistake that let the shortcomings of traditional remediation remain for so long. They are not bothering to look at the results of what they have put into place, perhaps because they, too, have no incentives for doing so.

Hunter R. Boylan is the director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University. 

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Essay on how to fix remedial education

Remedial education and the instructors who provide it are critical to maintaining college access and increasing student success, but the traditional model deployed by most colleges and universities is badly broken. Complete College America’s call for reform is not about the total elimination of remediation. It is about transforming the system to ensure more students succeed.

The numbers are staggering: of the up to 60 percent of community college students who are assigned to remediation, 10 percent graduate within three years. Even given four years for a two-year degree, chances remain slim that these students will complete college. Further, 70 percent of students placed into remedial math never even attempt a college-level gateway course within two academic years.

These numbers -- which are provided by the campuses and states -- are indisputable evidence that we can no longer defend the status quo when it comes to remedial education. They are also a poignant reminder that we must not measure our success by whether students pass remedial education courses alone, but instead implement models that dramatically increase the number of students who pass gateway college-level courses and ultimately earn a degree. Doing any less would be to deny millions of Americans access to the one proven means to finding a well-paying job and entering the middle class -- a college credential.

In working with the 34 members of our Alliance of States, Complete College America has sought out the strategies and best practices that most effectively address these challenges. Most importantly, these innovations have been developed and implemented by college faculty who are passionately committed to student success.

The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), developed by longtime community college English instructor Peter Adams, has doubled success rates for students, with 74 percent completing gateway courses in English in one semester. Likewise, the Structured Assistance program, developed by Tristan Denley when he was at Austin Peay State University, provides students who previously required remedial courses additional support in learning labs while they are enrolled in gateway college-level courses. The results have been astounding, with 78 percent of students successfully completing gateway courses in quantitative reasoning and 65 percent in statistics in a single term -- up from about 10 percent under traditional remediation models.

In these approaches, institutions are not eliminating remedial education, as some have suggested. Instead, they are shifting it from a prerequisite requirement to a corequisite, where students receive support while enrolled in the gateway courses. By delivering corequisite remediation alongside the college-level course, we eliminate attrition points -- the moments where students are most likely to fall out of the system -- and give remedial education instructors a framework in which many, many more of their students can succeed. We have found that it is not what happens in classrooms that is the problem -- but what happens from one semester to the next. Lengthening a student’s academic program by adding time and courses reduces the likelihood of their graduation. We are excited that innovators have found a way to solve the attrition problem without compromising the quality of instruction or lowering academic standards.

Around the country, efforts like corequisite remediation are gaining momentum. At a White House summit this past winter, 22 states made commitments to significantly increase the percentage of students placed into remedial education who complete gateway courses in one academic year. In addition, seven states have committed to scaling corequisite remediation statewide by 2015, ensuring that the majority of underprepared students in their states receive the academic support they need while enrolled in gateway courses. 

These principles for reform are based on a recognition that our current system allows too many students to fall through the cracks -- students who want nothing more than an opportunity to chase their dreams and reach their full potential. Our work is not a devaluation of the extraordinary efforts undertaken by remedial education instructors, but a challenge for all of us to work together and empower their work with innovation and ingenuity. 

At Complete College America, we believe -- and research has shown -- that far more students can succeed in college-level gateway courses than are currently placed into them. But we also know that such successes are dependent on additional support. Many students need remediation, but we have to deliver it in a way that is effective.

CCA supports any and all models that can show dramatic improvements in the number of students who successfully complete gateway math and English courses and ultimately earn a college degree. We look forward to continuing to work with faculty and higher education leaders from across the country to accomplish this critical goal.

Author/s: 
Stan Jones
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Stan Jones is president and founder of Complete College America, a national nonprofit working to significantly increase the number of Americans with a college degree or credential of value and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.

Federal job training programs encourage collaboration with employers

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The White House talks up $550 million in job training programs aimed at community colleges, including $100 million in new funding for apprenticeships.

Tennessee Plan for Free 2-Year Colleges Approved

The Tennessee House of Representatives on Tuesday, following a similar vote in the Senate, approved a plan by Governor Bill Haslam to offer free community college tuition to all graduates of high schools in the state, The Tennessean reported. The plan will take effect in fall 2015. Governor Haslam, a Republican, has pushed the plan as a key way for the state to encourage a larger share of the population to seek college credentials. The idea of free community college tuition has also been discussed in other states, but the Tennessee plan -- with the strong advocacy of a governor -- has attracted attention nationally and is now being adopted.

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Aspen Prize chief writes about high-achieving community colleges and their leaders

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Josh Wyner's new book describes what community colleges do well, and what they can do better.

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