The Obama administration is right to make community colleges a cornerstone of its plan to close skill gaps and put people back to work. The nation’s 1,200 community colleges enroll 6.7 million students, or nearly half the U.S. undergraduate population. They are key institutions in today’s education-intensive economy.
But there is a gaping hole in the community college pipeline: some 60 percent of incoming community college students must complete one or more remedial courses before working toward degrees, and upwards of 70 percent of students in these "developmental" math courses don’t complete them. As a result, the higher education careers of many students are over before they begin.
Researchers at Teachers College Columbia University have attracted wide coverage for a recent study  arguing that as many as one in four community college students placed in remedial courses would pass regular college-level classes if given the chance to enroll in them. But whether that’s true or not, vast numbers of students arrive at community colleges woefully unprepared and there’s little chance of substantially expanding the community college sector’s role in economic development unless we help students catch up.
The solution lies in rethinking remedial education. With the support of five national philanthropies, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has launched a national network of 27 community colleges and three universities dedicated to helping students at the greatest risk of failure in math. The approach uses a comprehensive strategy of support for students and faculty members in a "networked improvement community." It’s early in the life of the project, but the results so far are encouraging.
The strategy starts with dramatically altering the nature of instruction. Teaching students the same content the same way over and over is obviously not working. Those who failed to move beyond arithmetic in middle school, and who didn’t grasp key concepts any more fully during re-teaching in high school, are unlikely to master them if they are presented in the same abstract and rote fashion once more in community college.
Instead, the Carnegie network’s instruction and online out-of-class resources focus on the statistics and quantitative reasoning that matters most for students’ work, personal and civic lives. There are units on "Seven Billion and Counting," "The Credit Crunch" and "Has the Minimum Wage Kept Up?" Students learn math through themes such as citizenship and personal finance. It's rigorous stuff, but relevant and engaging, requiring students to use the tools of algebra, statistics, data visualizations and analysis to solve meaningful, real-world problems as a way of thinking mathematically.
The network is also using a number of promising psychological and motivational strategies to overcome students' pervasive math anxiety and other debilitating stereotypic beliefs and give them the confidence and drive they need to work hard and be successful. The effort includes helping faculty members create positive and productive learning environments through carefully designed team-building activities, protocols for classroom discussions, "classroom contracts" that foster camaraderie and group responsibility, and other strategies.
To the same end, the network is reconceptualizing students' homework assignments, replacing traditional rote exercises with problem- and scenario-based exercises that extend classroom learning. We're taking the obvious but often-neglected step of helping the many community college students for whom English isn't their first language navigate communication barriers.
And the project has abandoned the traditional model of the independent faculty member working in isolation in favor of a network strategy that allows faculty to work together across campuses to build common instructional systems and improve the program in real time through the network’s ongoing collection of student and faculty feedback (including strategies such as quick surveys delivered via students’ cell phones) and other information on instruction, instructional materials and student performance.
Importantly, community colleges in the project grant college credit toward certificates and degrees to students who complete the new, rigorous yearlong Carnegie “pathways,” saving students the often-demoralizing delay of taking noncredit classes (the norm for remedial courses in higher education).
Colleges pay just over $20,000 a year, the equivalent of about a half-dozen student tuitions, to participate in the network. Some pay less. By increasing the success rate in developmental courses, the network helps colleges extend student enrollments and increase graduation rates -- giving them a potentially substantial return on their investment.
The network’s early results are promising, even with a largely high-risk student population. Nearly half the students in network colleges are from households with incomes below $40,000 a year. And only 10 percent have mothers with at least a bachelor’s degree. Yet 89 percent remained enrolled for the full fall term (the program rolled out in the network’s colleges at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year) and 68 percent finished the first semester with a grade of C or better (required for college credit), nearly double the 36 percent of students earning the same grades in the less-demanding courses taught previously in the network's schools.
The students who completed the new courses scored nearly as high on an independent end-of-semester exam as a national sample of community college and university students who had completed college-level statistics coursework. And 88 percent of the students earning C's or better moved on to the second half of the two-semester, credit-yielding course. That's more than triple the proportion of students in the network's colleges who successfully navigated a first term of remedial math and signed up for a second before the network's creation.
And we know from surveys that the program’s confidence-building components increase students’ enthusiasm for math, and make students less anxious about the subject and more likely to believe that with hard work they could master it — a complete turnaround from the typical perspectives of students in traditional developmental math classes.
The test of the new network model will be sustaining these early results as we scale from 1,600 students today to our target of 62,000 a year by 2017-18. But the encouraging early evidence suggests that it is possible to reverse the pernicious culture of failure among community college students, that a comprehensive improvement strategy can put them on a surer path to a truly higher education.
Anthony Bryk is the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Thomas Toch directs the foundation’s Washington office.