Remedial education in higher education has become a target for reformers. Lawmakers in Florida have made remedial classes in math, reading and English optional for students entering community colleges in fall 2014. The placement tests to assess these skills will be optional as well.
Meantime, Tennessee and Connecticut have passed legislation making it easier for students to bypass remediation and enroll directly in courses that lead to graduation and completion of a major. And California State University has lowered its math and English placement test cutoff scores, requiring fewer students to do remedial coursework.
Roughly 60 percent of the 6.5 million students who enter the nation’s 1,200 community colleges enroll in remedial classes. More than half of them quit before finishing.
The states’ move away from remediation reflects growing skepticism toward its effectiveness as a graduation aid. Researchers from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, for example, found that unprepared students who enroll in remedial classes are no more likely to persist toward a degree than unprepared students who don’t take them. While other research suggests that remedial work may benefit extremely low-skilled students, colleges can’t force students to finish the coursework successfully.
Proponents of the reforms say they want to help students save money and earn college credits earlier, worthy goals at a time when student debt is mounting and colleges and universities are under pressure to graduate more students.
But a “one size fits all” approach to the problem – making remedial courses optional, for example -- is likely to fail. Researchers point out that studies on the effectiveness of remedial work predominantly focus on students who came close to passing placement exams. They judge kids who score abysmally on the tests as too different from college-ready students for inclusion in the studies. That remedial coursework may not benefit a subgroup of students is not a solid justification for eliminating it.
So before putting remedial work on an optional footing, or abandoning it altogether, there are innovative approaches worth trying to improve students’ college readiness and graduation rates.
One approach is to create accelerated learning programs, sometimes referred to as mainstreaming. These can assume many forms, but typically they integrate low- and high-performing students in remedial classes. For example, students are placed in a small math or English seminar while taking general education classes for credit. This approach has been found most effective for the higher-performing students. It avoids labeling particular students as deficient, thereby reducing the risk of stigmatizing students who already face barriers to social equality.
And it builds on the well-supported research finding that students learn how to complete college-level work by doing college-level work.
The success of mainstreaming depends on the quality and accessibility of support services. Small seminars and tutoring, for example, best supplement college-level instruction. A stand-alone support center is less helpful. A big benefit of mainstreaming is that the progress students achieve in developing their English and/or math skills improves their chances of success in regular college courses.
But tutoring and other learning supports have to be integrated with existing curricula and be flexible enough to help students with varying levels of underpreparedness. Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University, for example, eliminated remedial math, put students in college-level math instead and offered workshops that gave them extra-individualized help based on their initial assessments. One result is that twice the number of students passed the first level of general education math than in previous cohorts.
Institutions such as Kingsborough Community College in New York have pursued another approach by creating learning communities. These come in various shapes depending on students’ math and English skill levels. Some mix low- and higher-performing students; others are made up only of students who score low on placement tests. All such programs involve collaboration among remedial and general-education instructors, which includes the development of an integrated curriculums and opportunities for additional student support such as advising.
Research has shown that learning communities positively affect student outcomes. A study of Kingsborough’s program, for example, compared students enrolled in a learning community with traditional remedial-course takers and found that the former took more regular courses on average, passed more of them and earned more credits toward a degree.
But these kinds of interventions don’t just cost money. It takes time to design and implement what are essentially customized programs for subpopulations of students. While innovative strategies such as that adopted by Kingsborough show solid promise, the broader challenge is to identify what interventions work, how many resources need to be allocated to the project, and how to get faculty, administrators, counselors and students on board with reform efforts. That kind of expertise is crucial to making innovations travel.
Is maintaining a role for remedial education worth it? It’s unglamorous work, attempts to improve it frequently encounter bureaucratic resistance, and the research on its effectiveness is mixed.
But shutting down remedial programs without first trying out alternatives, as challenging as that is, will harm students who need the most help, especially those who graduate from low-performing, high-poverty high schools. Channeling these unprepared students into college coursework without providing them with an academic safety net is no formula for higher completion rates.
William G. Tierney is professor of higher education and the director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Julie C. Duncheon is a USC Provost’s Ph.D. fellow.
"Mike" is a student in my developmental English course. He was born in Argentina and calls himself Argentine, but he came here with his parents and older sister when he was 5 and he’s now 26. His family members speak Spanish at home, but Mike is of course perfectly fluent in English, having gone to public schools. He has been at our community college for two years; his only class this semester is developmental English. He has taken this very course four times, and his choice of other content courses is limited until he passes this class.
He has a round, bright face, dark hair, bushy brows, wire-frame glasses, small features and a neatly trimmed goatee. He is usually smiling broadly or grinning nervously. He is always anxious about directions. Today he is anxious about finding words with which to describe "The Rules of Friendship." I have written those four words on the board, and told the class, "Go ahead. List the rules … or laws or duties … of friendship."
"Friendship’s a duty?" Mike asks.
I address the class, "Is it a duty?"
"No," says Adam. “It’s more like … friendship has duties. That means if you’re gonna be a friend, you gotta do this or that."
"Right! So list — just list — what you think the duties or rules of friendship are."
This assignment never works.
I mean to draw them out, to get them to commit themselves to some ideas and then I imagine complicating those "laws" they’ve proscribed by having them read William Carlos Williams’s "The Knife of the Times," a very short story about Maura, a married woman, whose friend from childhood, Ethel, also a married woman, has realized she is passionately in love with her. Then, having read that story with my students, I imagine saying to them, "Well, why can’t a friend fall in love with you? What control do we have over that? Why shouldn’t we be sympathetic, as the flattered but confused heroine is?"
Just describing that assignment, it fools me again! It sounds so good!
It never works! It’s not Williams’s plot that throws them; even the most agile writers in the class get angry at their thoughts or annoyed with me for having tricked them in contemplating discomfiting possibilities; my queries in the margin are ignored or hastily answered.
Mike, in any case, is stuck. He raises his hand. Mike sits in the front row by, whenever possible, patient Joyce, who knows from her own difficult experiences in education what it is to be an outcast. Though smart and hardworking, Joyce has difficulties with fine motor skills that have hampered her social acceptance and made her handwriting appear — though it’s not — illiterate. (She refused to accept the services of a scribe, though she had used one in high school, she told me.) Mike, in a panicky hushed voice, says something to her. Joyce whispers something in reply. Mike shakes his head and keeps his hand raised.
“So, professor, is it O.K. if I say … if I say the duty of friendship is to be a friend?”
Joyce covers her eyes and bows her head.
Especially in developmental English, I really try not to be sarcastic. So I pause, but several students in that pause tilt their heads in wonder. It’s only the second week of class and Mike has become already the touchstone of incomprehension. Everyone understands better than Mike. If they don’t, they know they just weren’t listening. Mike’s presence is reassuring ("I’m not that confused!"), but it’s also worrying ("If I’m in the same place as this guy …"). I don’t want the other students to feel misplaced. They are in the right place — but they will make progress and Mike never ever will.
If you’re a serious teacher, you should indignantly ask, "How could you know that?" Or, trying to be kind, "How did you resign yourself to accepting that?" I’ve asked myself those questions, too, because I’m quite accustomed to being wrong about students — so how could I have faith in (resignation to) Mike’s failure?
By the end of the second week, I have guessed that Mike is probably a student who uses the outstanding special services program at our college. He and I are veterans of this course; I have taught it 22 times; he has taken it or the class immediately below this one four times.
He has told me his previous instructors here were nice but they didn’t know how to help him. He says it’s very good that I know some Spanish ("Some?" I wonder — I thought my Spanish was pretty good!), and that he has appreciated a few of the explanations I’ve been able to give him in Spanish, but he says my vocabulary is poor. "It’s O.K.," he says, encouragingly, patronizingly, in the same way I realize I sometimes address the students. "People think Spanish is easy, but it’s not."
One morning at the end of our third week, he waits for me after class. I have announced the date for the departmental midterm, and he tells me, "You know I have a few problems and I get to have extra time on my exams?"
"No, I didn’t know that."
He pulls out a form from the special services program that does not explain in any particulars why he’s to be allowed extra time, and he notes the date of the midterm. "And you have to sign here so I can be allowed to do that."
"I don’t really need it, but it’s nice to have extra time sometimes. It’s hard for me to think when there’s lots and lots and lots … and lots of pressure. When there’s a lot of pressure, I don’t really care for that, you know?"
"I know there’s a lot of pressure with exams. It’s fine, Mike."
The next week, Mike asks, a few chapters into our crawl through To Kill a Mockingbird, "Why is Scout angry with his brother?"
"But … Scout?"
"He’s mad at his brother."
"Remember, everyone, Scout is a girl — Mike, you mean her brother."
"Scout’s gotta be a boy," insists Mike.
"But she’s not."
"Because she plays with boys."
"But she’s a girl?"
“Is it the term ‘tomboy’ that’s confusing, Mike?”
"Yeah, maybe that’s it."
Mike makes progress in moments, but those moments are piles of leaves on a windy day. They don’t stay where we pile them. They blow every which way, and the next day there’s no sign of them.
"Scout was a boy but now she’s a girl," he announces.
"No, she’s always been a girl. She is a girl. 'Tomboy' is a term people used to use to describe a girl who plays with boys and prefers their company to other girls."
"So ‘tomboy’ doesn’t have to be a boy?"
"It’s never a boy — it’s always a girl."
"That doesn’t make sense."
"It’s an expression, but that’s really what it means."
"It’s very confused — that word is confused, you know that?"
He writes draft after draft of an essay on a scene from the novel, and I cross out and query his logic or his bewildering accounts of the book. I return draft after draft to him. He is proud of his persistence. This rare quality, which I aspire to and always admire in others, is finally the quality that convinces me Mike’s hopes for educational progress are hopeless. If he weren’t trying so hard, I could keep thinking of ways to try to motivate him. But he is trying so hard. I’m stumped.
"I worked on the revision you gave me back yesterday, because that’s all I really have to do. I don’t have a job, and so I like to sit at my computer and I do my work really fast. I think you’ll like this new one I did. It has everything you said I should say.”
Because he can’t do much with the queries I make (e. g., "Where do you see this in the chapter?" "Is this you or the author making this observation?"), I have been crossing out and rewriting his phrases into sense and instructing him to simply type up what he sees there on the page. Copying what I have written or copying sentences by Harper Lee, it turns out, is quite enough of a challenge. After four or five weeks, we have built an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird. If you don’t look too closely, the essay seems to make sense.
"But this is good, right, professor?"
"Well, it’s getting clearer.”
“But it’s good?"
“Clearer. So, yes, clearer is better, Mike."
During revision time in the computer lab, I have him read new drafts or paragraphs aloud to me and I, holding my own copy, stop him if he doesn’t hear his frantic wandering circlings or missed words. He misreads his own writing and I check him: " 'She seen me,' you wrote."
He’s continually reading my face — I am perplexed by his confusion. "Oh, oh!" he says. He starts his random guessing: "'She didn’t seen me'? …" He studies me. "That’s not right," he concludes. "I can tell!"
"Right. So …"
"Oh! She saw me!"
"Right — and you read it aloud as 'saw' — but you wrote it as 'seen.'"
"Why did I do that?" he asks grinning. He turns and looks over his hunched shoulder at his classmates. He is smiling in embarrassment, though no one else — they’re all typing away -- has witnessed his mistake. "I know what I mean, but I don’t write it. It’s confused. It’s confusing. What’s the difference, confused and confusing? You say both things on my papers sometimes."
"Sometimes I’m confused; sometimes what you write is confusing — producing … making confusion. So, Mike, let’s try to get you to use your ear to check. Go on, we’ll continue, but you can do this on your own, too."
The next day, another draft.
"So this is my sixth draft, professor. You think this’ll pass me?"
"Do I think this will get your portfolio to pass? … No, probably not."
He grins. Had he heard right? "You’re teasing, right, professor? You like to tease."
"I do tease too much … but, no, I wasn’t teasing — Mike, the main thing is to make progress. Your writing is very confusing — even to you! We have to work on that.”
"But I could still pass the class, right?"
"You could — but you don’t need to think about that." He cannot pass! Why am I lying? He will never, ever pass the exams.
“So you think I could pass?” he says quickly, eagerly.
"Right now …" I pause and reflect.
What is encouragement but the faith in progress? I cannot and will not encourage him. I’m going to take back my lie. I’m going to tell him no, never, he’ll never get out of this class and this course. I’m going to be teaching this course until I die and he’ll still be taking it. "Right now, Mike … it doesn’t look likely."
"But if I work real hard …"
"If, somehow, the confusion disappears, then it’s possible."
"It is possible," says Mike. "I can write not so confused, right, professor? And then I’ll pass for sure."
"Let’s get back to work. But I can’t see any more drafts of this because I need time to look at everyone else’s third drafts."
"I have faith in me and you have faith in me, too, right, professor?"
"I know, Mike, that you’re going to work hard. That’s my faith."
He takes a long look over his shoulder, as if to refute his doubters, Pyotr, Adam, and Beatrice, and announces, "I’ll work hard and professor says I’ll climb out of this class!"
A couple of weeks after the midterm, one of my kindly colleagues returns to me my students’ exams. (In our developmental courses we instructors evaluate one another’s students’ exams and portfolios; I’ve come to like this system, as we can all take comfort that the judgments the students receive don’t wholly depend on our personal biases.) "I think I missed on one," says Luisa, with perplexity. "There was something going on and I couldn’t follow it. Miguel, I think it was."
"Mike — yes." That day I hand back the midterms and the other professor’s responses and then meet for a few minutes with each student about the exam. Mike tells me, "I did pretty good!"
"Which part did your reader like, Mike?”"
"None of them really — but she said I could probably do better. I could probably be more clear. So that means I’m doing better."
I will hear, a year later, from Mike’s teacher in the same course, that when Mike showed up to her classroom to take the midterm, she expressed her surprise. "Mike, you want to be here?"
"Yes, here. I know my rights."
“I mean … that’s fine.”
“I can take it here. You can’t stop me.”
“That’s fine, Mike! But you won’t be able to have extra time if you take it here.”
"I know that! I just want to be like everyone else, that’s all."
"Oh." (My colleague: "That’s what got me. After all, his goal’s pretty humble. It’s just … I don’t want to admit it even to myself, but I don’t think I can help him get there.")
The last day of the semester usually seems anticlimactic. The last day used to mean so much to me when I first started teaching. Now the goodbyes are less regretful, less complicated. It’s a cycle rather than an end, I tell myself.
For the developmental class, it’s results day: the students receive their portfolios and their reading scores. If they pass both, they can take the systemwide writing exam and graduate to Freshman English, where they can finally see their time and money paying off in their pursuit of an associate degree. In my office, I gather their portfolios — cross-graded by my colleagues — and leave early for the classroom. I want to see Mike, who is always early, before his classmates arrive. When I arrive he and Adam are there. I have also brought two boxes of doughnuts. I lay the cartons on a desk to the side and open them. "Have one."
"I’m going to wait," says Mike. "I want to see first if I passed."
"Adam?" I say, nodding at the doughnuts.
"Don’t mind if I do!"
I sit at my desk with the stack of student portfolios before me. “Who’s first?”
"We were on the same elevator," says Adam. "Go ahead, Mikey."
Before he approaches, I feel Mike’s eyes trying to read me. Hope? Hope? Hope!
I feel stone-faced, like a judge. How can Mike possibly think he can pass? How?
He sits at the chair to my right beside my desk.
"I passed, right?"
From the stack of portfolios I take his and push it across to him.
"This is my portfolio," he says.
"I should read it?"
“Should I?” he asks. He is desperate to read congratulations in my expression.
As I watch him hesitate, his fingers rubbing at the portfolio cover, his body slowly rocking in the chair, I groan, "You didn’t pass, Mike!"
His mouth goes tight; his round, mobile features go numb. He has never been at a loss for rambling, panicked, anxious words.
The portfolio before him remains unopened. I reach over, he pulls his hand off, and I open the cover.
Imagine a sawn tree just before it’s pushed over. Is it wobbling? Is it unnaturally still because it’s about to topple? I see that stillness in Mike.
I extract the evaluation sheet from the portfolio. "Now look — your revised essay, the one on To Kill a Mockingbird, the one you worked hard on, that’s ‘Satisfactory-minus.’ The professor who read it liked it, for the most part. … See?" I read aloud her comment.
Mike isn’t responding. He is looking at me, not reproachfully, as far as I can tell, or angrily, but as if he has been sentenced to life in prison for a parking ticket. Then I realize he is doing all he can in order not to cry. I am his executioner and in the absence of his voice I am the one babbling. I encourage him!
"You made progress with that essay, Mike. You made some progress. It’s O.K. … it’s not a failure," I lie. "Are you O.K.?"
He doesn’t answer. I close the portfolio.
"Mikey," Adam’s voice calls out from the back of the classroom, "it’s cool. You’ll make it next time."
Mike doesn’t turn. His reproachful eyes land on mine. His eyes are watery but he does not cry. I look down in shame. I see his hand take the folder and when I look up he is lifting his backpack as he rises from the chair.
I say, "Take a doughnut, Mike."
He turns and walks out the door.
I want to lay my head on my desk, but I hear the chatter of voices in the hallway.
Adam says, "I told him before you got here that it might take like two semesters."
For Mike it might be "like forever." He will be here forever, and I will be here forever in that purgatory of non-progress.
I sigh. "You passed, though, Adam. Congratulations."
"I know — anyway, I thought I would. I didn’t want to get too cocky or be too happy while Mike was still here."
The other students are arriving and someday Mike will be back.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
The author and philosopher, Thomas Merton, once said that “the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.” The self-fulfilling prophecy that remedial education has failed now leads us to such a reign of error. The news media, policy makers and various higher education agencies are using flawed interpretations of data about remediation to make unsupported assertions and repeat them frequently, thus leading to erroneous policy decisions.
It began with a 2007 report by Mattorell and McFarlin. Supported by the Rand Corporation, these researchers used a regression-discontinuity design to study a large sample of Texas college students whose scores placed them just above and just below the placement level for remedial courses in mathematics and reading. They found that those who just missed the cut score and placed into remedial courses did no better in college-level classes, graduation rates, transfer rates and earnings than those students who just made the cut score. This finding was used to support the authors’ conclusion that remediation was of questionable value.
There is a major flaw in this conclusion. The authors assume that participation in remedial courses should result in participants performing better than students who did not take them. The purpose of remedial courses, however, is to level the academic playing field for underprepared students, not to enable them to outperform prepared students. Given that, the fact that there is little difference in performance between the two groups would indicate that the purpose of remedial courses had been accomplished.
A similar study using a regression discontinuity design was conducted by Calcagno and Long (2008) with similar results. Students in this study who scored just below the cut score and participated in remediation did no better in the corresponding college-level course than those who scored slightly higher and bypassed remediation. Calcagno and Long were more tentative about the meaning of their findings than Martorell and McFarlin. They pointed out that “[t]he results of this study suggest that remediation has both benefits and drawbacks as a strategy to address the needs of underprepared students.” They also admit that “the research design we used only allows the identification of the effect of remediation on a subset of students who scored just above and just below the cutoff score. Estimates should not be extrapolated to students with academic skills so weak that they scored significantly below the cutoff point”
Neither study explored the performance of students with lower assessment test scores in later college-level classes. And neither study is generalizable to the entire range of remedial courses and students. Yet these are the major studies used to justify the claim that all remediation has failed. Although none of the authors of these studies makes this claim, their work is used to justify it.
Meanwhile, there are other studies of remediation leading to different conclusions. In a 2006 study using the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal database, Attewell, Lavin, Domina and Levey found that “two-year college students who successfully passed remedial courses were more likely to graduate than equivalent students who never took remediation.” They also found that students who took remedial reading or writing were more likely to graduate from community colleges than students who did not take these courses. Bahr then later studied the effect of remediation on a large sample of students at 107 California community colleges. He found that students who successfully completed math remediation were just as successful in college-level math courses as those who did not require remediation. He concluded that “these two groups of students experience comparable outcomes, which indicates that remedial math programs are highly effective at resolving skill deficiencies.”
Boatman and Long, in a 2010 study, reviewed a sample of 12,200 students enrolled at public institutions in Tennessee. Although they found many negative effects for remediation, they also found some positive effects depending upon the subject area and the degree of student underpreparedness. Among their conclusions were that postsecondary decision makers “not treat remediation as a singular policy but instead consider it as an intervention that might vary in its impact according to student needs.”
If we look at all the major studies of remediation, we find conflicting findings and inconclusive results. Given these findings, it is difficult to understand how any credible scholar familiar with the available evidence can decisively conclude that remediation has failed. Nevertheless, there are those who misinterpret or ignore the available evidence to make this claim and are then widely quoted by others. It does not take long for the press and policymakers to echo these quotes. In fact, there is little data to justify this assertion and the studies on which the assertion is based do not support it.
A prime example showing the perpetuation of the reign of error can be found in a recent report from Complete College America. Entitled “Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere,” the report contends at the outset that the “current remediation system is broken” and that “remediation doesn’t work.” As evidence for this assertion, the report claims “research shows that students who skip their remedial assignments do just as well in gateway courses as those who took remediation first.” This erroneously suggests that all remediation has failed. Because the authors do not bother to cite a reference for this claim, we can only assume that they are using the Martorell and McFarlin, Boatman and Long, and the Calcagno and Long studies to justify it. As previously noted, this is not what either publication actually says.
The “Bridge to Nowhere” report goes on to project that, according to their data, only 9.5 percent of those who take remedial courses will graduate from a community college within three years while 13.9 percent of those who do not take remedial courses will graduate within three years. The authors cite these figures as further evidence of the failure of remediation. We do not disagree with these figures but we do disagree with the interpretation of them. The authors of “Bridge to Nowhere” appear to be arguing that it is participation in remediation that accounts for this difference in graduation rates. This argument is based on the assumption that correlation implies causality, a well-known fallacy among researchers. Furthermore, as Bettinger and Long in a 2005 study point out, “a simple comparison of students in and out of remediation is likely to suggest negative effects due to important academic differences in the underlying populations.” Students placing into remediation are disproportionately characterized by known risk factors such as being minority, low income, first generation and underprepared. For such students it is likely that these factors account more for low graduation rates than participation in remediation.
We do not argue with the data provided in any of these reports, nor do we question the methodology used in obtaining the data. We also concur with many of the recommendations in “Bridge to Nowhere.” We would further agree that remediation as currently delivered in U.S. community colleges is very much in need of reform. However, we disagree that all remediation has failed everywhere for all students as many policymakers and news reporters seem to believe. There is simply no credible scientific evidence to support this belief. Unfortunately, that does not stop organizations like Complete College America and others from asserting that remediation has failed, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A more recent example took place in the Connecticut Legislature this year. Based on the misinterpretations of research and the fallacious arguments discussed here, the Legislature required that remediation be limited to one semester in all its colleges and replaced by embedded support services in gateway courses. This also happens to be one of the major recommendations of Complete College America. Although we agree that this might be a good solution for some students, particularly for those at the top of the remediation score distribution, it is not a good solution for all students. In fact, there is no single solution for all underprepared college students. There are many tools validated by varying amounts of research available to address the needs of underprepared college students through improved remedial courses and a variety of separate or embedded support services.
Neither colleges and universities nor policymakers, then, should conclude that all remediation has failed and engage in knee-jerk attempts to eliminate it. We need to reform remediation and guide our reform efforts with accurate data and sound research. We need to explore various alternatives, including some of those proposed by Complete College America and others. Nonetheless, we disagree that eliminating all remedial courses is a wise course of action. As Bahr points out, remediation “is so fundamental to the activities of the community college that significant alterations to remedial programs would change drastically the educational geography of these institutions. This should give pause to those who advocate the elimination of remediation … as the implication of such changes would be profound indeed.” We believe that arguing for such profound change as the elimination of remediation for all students on the basis of so little evidence is not only ill-advised but will also undermine the goal of improving college completion.
Hunter R. Boylan is the director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University. Alexandros Goudas is an English instructor at Delta Community College.
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.