Remediation Worries and Successes

At national gathering of community college trustees, many search for answers -- and some colleges report strategies that may be working.
October 9, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- At one session on remedial education here, a speaker asked the audience of community college trustees how many of them knew their institution's graduation rate. A minority of hands -- maybe 20 percent -- went up. But if trustees are not as well versed on student success at their institutions as the question suggested they should be, that doesn't mean that they aren't interested. The session was standing room only, and other sessions on remedial education here at the annual meeting of the Association of Community College Trustees were also not only well attended, but full of trustees with lots of questions -- about why so much remediation is needed and what can be done to make it work.

There was a strong undercurrent of frustration to many of the questions, with many saying that community colleges were unfairly seen by many in the public as being only remedial institutions, even though they have little control of the factors that lead to remediation. One trustee noted that in her state, scholarships are awarded to students who achieve certain grade levels in high school, effectively making the community college free. About 20 percent of those who enroll through the program need at least some remediation, she said.

If that share of what the state considers top students aren't ready for college-level work, is it any surprise, she asked, that the percentages are even higher for other students?

Trustees offered a range of reasons for focusing more on this issue. Some cited more idealistic motivations, related to wanting every student to have a shot at success. Others were more practical, noting the huge costs of remediation and the political pressure to show success with these programs.

John E. Roueche, director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, offered some historical perspective about just how long remedial education has been a tough issue for community colleges. He said he first did a major study of remedial education at community colleges in 1968 and found terrible rates of success -- defining success as completing remediation at levels sufficient for college-level work. At many colleges he studied, only 1 in 10 students could be judged a success by that standard, and that's still the case today.

The major change in the last four decades? The top course at community colleges has switched from remedial English to remedial mathematics.

One part of the problem, he said, is that colleges aren't asking tough enough questions about their own performance in making remediation work. He gave as an example a college where he was brought in to do a workshop for the faculty members providing remedial courses. The instructors boasted to him that they had won awards for their work in achieving a 50 percent success rate. But this didn't mean that 50 percent of students were reaching college-level work (which would indeed be better than many colleges' track records).

What the figure meant was that 50 percent were completing a remedial course successfully. Because most students needed multiple courses to get ready for college-level work, and the 50 percent applied to each course, this meant that only about 12.5 percent of those starting remediation were ever reaching college-level work.

Trustees, he told the audience, need to start asking more questions. Beyond his question about graduation rates, he said every trustee should be asking administrators the following (and judging from the note-taking in the audience, there may be new questions at many colleges' next board meeting):

  • What percentage of students need remedial work?
  • What percentage pass their remedial courses?
  • What percentage reach college-level work?
  • How do these percentages change for different demographic groups?
  • Are placement policies enforced? (He said too many community colleges let "well intentioned faculty members or counselors" help students bypass remediation that they need, only to watch the students fail.)
  • Does the college have attendance policies? (Roueche said too many colleges say that their policy is to let faculty members decide, which is essentially "not having a policy." He advocated strict policies, telling students they can't miss class or register late.)

While Roueche's talk was depressing to many in the audience, he stressed that there are strategies that are working, and said that the first thing colleges need to do is start trying approaches that are being used successfully elsewhere.

One of the colleges praised at Roueche's session -- Parkland College, the community college in Champaign, Ill. -- was the subject of another session for the way it has revamped remedial education, and is starting to see some results.

Since 2006, the college has restructured a series of programs for remedial students and for all students -- in fact grouping them together in a new Center for Academic Success. Randall Fletcher, dean of academic services, said it was important to group services together and not to create a stigma around seeking help. At the same time, he said, it was necessary for the college to try a range of new strategies to try to get more students through courses. All of these new efforts were faculty designed, he said, and a faculty member behind many of the ideas -- Pam Lau -- was recruited to head it.

One initiative she described as important was the creation of a tutoring program for math involving faculty members who teach remedial math, not a separate academic support staff. Lau said that three hours a day, space is available for students to do their homework -- and they are told that they won't be quizzed or bothered if they know what they are doing, and that the faculty help is only there if needed.

Typically they do need some help, but the arrangement makes students more comfortable coming, Lau said. This "just in time" learning is what students don't get if they do their homework at home, without anyone to ask for help. The faculty members (who have time in the center counted toward their course load obligations) get to see exactly which concepts are taking hold and which aren't.

This seemingly small idea is having results. The pre-algebra course completion rate has been 51 percent. But 63 percent of those pre-algebra students who visit the tutoring center at least five times during the semester successfully complete the course, and the percentages go up further for those who visit more. Similar improvements are showing up for those who are in other remedial math courses.

Another innovation is the division of remedial math courses into five modules. Students can continue to take the modules as a single, one-semester course, or they can take the same material (and take the same final exam) divided into five, with topics covered at a slower pace. Typically, she said, a one semester course becomes two semesters of five modules. The slower pace and narrower focus seem to be reaching students with math anxiety, many of whom have previously been unable to get through a single remedial course. Students must also successfully master one module before going to the next, which is key in math, Lau said, since the ideas build on one another.

Started with a few students three years ago, the module approach is now attracting 50 students a semester. And that's even with tough conditions, such as requiring all homework to be done in the student center, with faculty members and others around to assist. Lau said this isn't going to be the way the next generation of engineers is trained, but that this is keeping in the pipeline many students who need some basic math skills.

The college's center has numerous other programs, and also is rigorous about tracking students, all of whom have a swipe card that they use when they come to the center. As a result, the college of 10,500 students knows that it is attracting more than 36,000 visits to the center a year and starting to see improvements in course completion rates.

Fletcher, the dean, said he realizes that the college is making a real investment in time and money and is only starting to see the impact it would like. But he said that it is far more expensive to admit students and never have them progress at all. "If we lose them in the sequence of developmental education, we've lost them as students," he said.


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