Remedial education

Study shows decadelong dip in remedial coursetaking

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Federal data show that proportion of students in developmental courses edged up between 2003-4 and 2007-8 -- but fell sharply from 1999-2000.

Essay on flawed interpretations of research on remedial education

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.

Essay on reforming remedial education at community colleges

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.

Essay argues that legislation won't end remedial education

A plan in Connecticut to legislate the end of most remedial education courses in public higher education has once again raised questions about why so many incoming students are not prepared for college-level work and what can be done about it. To fully comprehend and effectively address the nation’s reliance on remediation, it is important to look at some basic facts surrounding the issue.

We do not have a system of public education in this country. As a nation, we have yet to connect the dots between early childhood programming, kindergarten learning, elementary and secondary education coursework, and college curriculums. Until we do, the issue of remediation – and the excessive costs associated with it in every state – will carry on.

Forty to fifty percent of children nationwide are underprepared for kindergarten, lacking the basic vocabulary and sensitivities that the work demands. These same students are pushed through the system, and in third and fourth grade cannot comprehend early math and English instruction. By the time they reach college – if they make it that far – they are saddled with remedial coursework that costs taxpayers money and whittles away at the students’ financial aid. At the State University of New York alone, we spend more than $70 million per year on remediation, and 20 percent — or $93 million — of financial aid awarded to our community college students goes toward remedial classes.

I applaud Connecticut’s intent to abolish remediation, but this is not a legislative issue. It’s a community issue that can only be effectively addressed by an agreement on behalf of everyone who has a stake in a child’s education — parents, educators, civic groups, employers, and government leaders — to break out of our boxes and accept a shared responsibility for maintaining the education pipeline.

To eliminate the need for remediation, the disconnects among us must first be collaboratively addressed. Teachers can better communicate with parents about what is expected of their children in class and what can be done at home to ensure their preparation. School districts and colleges can work together to develop curriculums that will prepare students for the next stage of their education, from kindergarten to higher ed. Finally, stronger partnerships between colleges and employers will result in job-ready graduates who have been trained for in-demand careers.

SUNY is using this cradle-to-career approach to mend the pipeline and educate our young people in a more systematic way. By year’s end, we will have the results of a statewide study commissioned by the state legislature and carried out by SUNY that will provide a snapshot of student preparedness in New York.

Together with our K-12 partners, we will use the results of this study to evaluate proficiency and address weaknesses in the pipeline by expanding effective resources, such as educational opportunity programs, and introducing new ones, like "summer boot camp." Once students are enrolled in college and truly in need of remediation, we will work toward better results by improving student advisement services and carrying out best practices that are proven to equip students with the skills they need. By also re-evaluating existing student aid programs, we will ensure that remedial courses are delivered in a cost-effective manner until they are no longer needed.

In New York, Connecticut, and across the country, too many of our children are underperforming in school. By not collaborating to put effective education reforms in place that address every child’s need from cradle to career, we are letting it happen. Any legislation that addresses our reliance on remedial education must be fully informed and carried out by all involved.

Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York.

Too many community college students are placing into remedial classes, studies find

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Standardized tests are placing community college students who are ready for college into remedial classes, two studies find, making them less likely to earn degrees.

Montgomery College follows remedial math revolution

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New Montgomery College math lab takes increasingly popular "emporium" approach to remedial math, where professors change their role to boost student success.

Ohio chancellor wants to end remedial education at public universities

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Chancellor of Ohio's higher ed system wants to end remedial education at four-year universities. Critics say the policy could hurt minority and low-income students.

The Remedial Ph.D.

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As colleges struggle to improve developmental programs, universities create doctoral programs in the field.

Remedial Plus

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A community college in Chicago finds that study groups can dramatically improve passage rates. But faculty worry that changes in grading rules are a key reason for the improvements.


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