Remediation Is Not the Enemy

John Schlueter writes that emphases on corequisite reform risk depriving vulnerable students of the learning opportunities that developmental education can provide.

April 21, 2022
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A “bridge to nowhere,” a “bottomless pit,” a “thorn in the side of higher education.” If you’ve been keeping up with the movement to reform—and potentially eliminate—remedial college courses, it would seem as if those courses represent an almost evil attempt to undermine student success, and that these courses persist through the sheer unwillingness of professors and leaders to engage in reform.

On the other hand, corequisite classes, we are told, are a way out of this “pit.” In corequisite courses, which have been spreading from state to state for the past decade, students who may have been placed in remedial English and math courses are instead enrolled directly into college-level courses and co-enrolled in a support class. Proponents of corequisite reform point to the evidence that seems to clearly show that outcomes are much better for students who take corequisite courses compared to similar students to take remedial courses before college-level courses. After all, when you are shown studies that demonstrate that students who could have been placed in remedial courses are instead placed in corequisite ones, and those students pass their college-level courses in much higher numbers than the students who enrolled in remedial courses first, how can’t you also see remediation as a fool’s errand?

More Students Passing; More Students Failing

I have examined the research that proponents of corequisite reform cite in their literature as closely as my expertise (or lack thereof) allows, and here’s one of the most important things I think college instructors like me need to know: the “successes” of corequisite reforms are based solely on volume. Indeed, many more students will pass college-level courses if they are placed directly into them, compared to students who must pass one or two levels of remedial coursework before they take that college-level class. Yet many more students are also failing these important classes.

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The recent legislative mandate that severely limits the amount of remediation allowed in California Community Colleges provides data that demonstrate what I mean. Before this mandate, several community colleges there were implementing corequisite reforms, but the mandate helped accelerate that process. In a presentation for a 2019 conference held by the Center for the Analysis of Post-Secondary Readiness, slide 21 shows that the percentage of students placed directly into college-level math in the California Community College system increased from 26 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in the fall of 2018, and the percentage of students placed directly into college-level English increased from 44 percent to 72 percent over the same time frame. Slide 23 then shows the relationship between the volume of completers of an entry-level college math course versus the volume of “non-successes” for such courses. Predictably, the volume of successful completers of college-level math rose as more students were placed directly into such courses, from 26,986 in 2015 to 40,776 in 2018—a 51 percent increase So far, so good. However, the volume of “non-successes” also rose dramatically: from 14,157 in 2015 to 26,804 in 2018—an 89 percent increase. And the overall pass rate dropped slightly, from 66 percent to 60 percent.

There is a significant difference between failing a remedial course and failing a college-level course. One difference is how it affects a student’s grade point average on official college transcripts, and there may be greater emotional and psychological effects as well. Unfortunately, however, no one is focusing on the outcomes of students who have been placed in a corequisite pathway but fail or drop out.

Read the Research!

One vocal proponent of corequisite reform is Alexandra Logue, a research professor in the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the City University of New York —and it is one of her studies that I’d like to examine closely. The study, coauthored by Logue and two colleagues, traces outcomes for students assigned either to a traditional remedial elementary algebra course or a college-level statistics course with corequisite support over three years. Logue and her colleagues concluded that the “corequisite group not only demonstrated significantly higher quantitative course pass rates but also success in many other disciplines, as well as significantly higher graduation rates.”

However, when we look the raw numbers, we get a more complex picture. The Logue et al. study compares two groups of students: one that takes a traditional remediation pathway and one that takes a corequisite pathway. In the fall of 2013, the remedial group consisted of 244 students, 96 of whom passed their traditional remedial algebra course. Of those 96 students, 51 enrolled in the college-level math course, of which 33 students passed. Finally, a total of 42 of the original 244 students received an associate degree or transferred to a bachelor’s degree program by the fall of 2016.

In contrast, of the 246 students who enrolled directly into a college-level statistics course along with a support workshop, 137 passed the class. Of the 137 students who passed, 61 eventually received an associate degree or transferred to a bachelor’s degree by the fall of 2016.

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Obviously, what proponents of corequisite pathways will focus on are the different pass rates for college-level math: 137 of the 246 (56 percent) students in the corequisite groups passed the college-level math course compared to 33 of the 244 (14 percent) students who first started in a remedial course. Furthermore, students who started in a college-level math course graduated or transferred within three years at a higher rate than students who started in a remedial course (about 25 percent versus 17 percent): in characterizing the data, Logue et al. wrote that the course sequence for students who started in remedial elementary algebra “had more possible exit points” than the sequence for students starting in college-level statistics, “and that students were lost at every possible exit point, with a higher total number of [elementary algebra] students lost.”

However, I think the data from this study actually demonstrate the effectiveness of remediation. Of the 51 students who enrolled in the college-level math course after first completing remedial coursework, 33 passed. This is a 65 percent pass rate. And of the 51 who enrolled in college-level work after passing remedial coursework, 42—or 82 percent—graduated or transferred. In contrast, of the 137 who passed the corequisite math course, 61 graduated or transferred—a rate of 45 percent.

Based on these data, to conclude that remediation is an obstacle to student success is misguided. If we convince ourselves that progress means eliminating the learning opportunities that remedial coursework clearly provides, because they are “exit points” for vulnerable students, then we will continue to overlook the types of reform that really move the needle on student success.

We Know What Really Works

The blame remedial and developmental education gets is part of an insidious narrative regarding education and equity—one that seems progressive but actually helps underpin the continued existence of inequity in society at large. For instance, in their literature on eliminating remedial education, Complete College America notes the overrepresentation of racial minority, first-generation and low-income students in developmental education and writes that they see equity gaps in developmental education as “institutional performance gaps” rather than “achievement gaps.” In other words, as if to announce how in tune they are with the fact that gaps in achievement along racial, ethnic or class lines do not point to mental deficiencies but to deep, prolonged and sustained socioeconomic inequality, CCA places the onus on institutions to erase such gaps.

But this is simply swapping cause for effect. If gaps in academic achievement are caused by socioeconomic inequality, then how can we really close those gaps without addressing said inequality? Corequisite reform makes it seem like we are addressing this inequity by removing the “barriers” of remedial coursework, but more students passing, and more failing, gateway college courses doesn’t do anything but support the economic structures that create inequality in the first place. Wouldn’t the best way for colleges to address the cause as a cause be not to eliminate remedial coursework, but to invest in far more robust support services in an attempt to mitigate the effects of inequality?

Such investment is exactly the model provided by the extremely successful Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, first pioneered at CUNY and then replicated in three Ohio community colleges. Students in the program must study full-time, and they benefit from financial assistance as well as linked or blocked courses and more intensive advising and tutoring supports.

A 155-page report on a three-year, randomized trial conducted by MDRC concluded that ASAP had the “largest estimated impacts on credit accumulation and graduation rates of any of the higher education programs that MDRC has evaluated: a near doubling of graduation rates after three years.” Moreover, this program was found to be effective to support students who needed one or two developmental courses. MDDC concludes that “developmental education students’ outcomes can be markedly improved with the right package of supports, requirements, and messages—without changing what happens in the classroom.”

We know this approach works, and corequisite classes can be a part of this comprehensive solution; however, instead of uniting behind an approach such as ASAP (which is stalling because of its up-front costs—though over all it is a very cost-effective program) we are wasting time demonizing remedial coursework while legislators in state after state are being distracted by the shiny toy that is corequisite reform and the elimination of developmental education.

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John Schlueter is an instructor of English at Saint Paul College.

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