Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Remedial Sequences

A hat-tip to Sherman Dorn for pointing out this story in IHE that I had missed.

According to a report from the Community College Research Center, looking at remedial courses as a sequence, rather than discrete courses, leads to some disturbing conclusions. As reported by IHE, fewer than 4 out of every 10 students who start a remedial sequence actually finish it, with most of the attrition occurring during, or even before, the first course. The report recommends that colleges pay special attention to advisement and counseling between courses, to keep students from falling between the cracks.

This is a HUGE deal for community colleges, and it's terribly complicated. At my cc, which certainly isn't among the really struggling ones, a majority of entering students place developmental (we prefer that term to 'remedial') in at least one course, usually math. The developmental math sequence starts all the way back with arithmetic, and builds through basic and intermediate algebra before the students can take credit-bearing courses. Developmental English includes both reading and writing, and there's an ongoing debate as to whether ESL should be considered developmental.

The paradox of developmental courses is that the more basic the material, the lower the pass rate. We have a higher pass rate in calculus than in arithmetic, just as we have a higher pass rate in World Literature than in basic reading. Of course, the only students who take calculus are those who sailed through the lower-level math courses – usually in high school – so they're presumably capable. The paradox becomes clearer when you consider self-selection.

The issues around developmental ed are legion.

Politically, it's radioactive. A fair number of taxpayers blanch at the idea of paying a community college to teach material that they've already paid the K-12 system to cover. (Some of them persist in the outdated notion that 'trades' are easily distinguishable from 'degree programs,' and suggest that you don't need basic reading or math skills in the trades. For those keeping score at home, the largest providers of 'vocational' education in America are community colleges, and the feedback we get from employers – consistently and without fail – is that they need employees who can communicate, and who don't freeze up when doing simple math.) Among supporters of developmental ed, conversations about obstacles faced by students have an elaborate etiquette, since they can very easily shade into student-blaming. (And honesty compels me to admit that some students are actually their own worst enemies.) It's also easy to veer into unhelpful quasi-socialist tirades, as if corporations made a profit from non-profit public sector colleges teaching basic algebra. They don't.

Philanthropists generally like to support successful outcomes, usually defined as graduation and job placement. That's understandable, but it usually means that the developmental stuff has to come entirely from our dwindling operating budget.

Developmental courses are resource-intensive. They have to be kept small, since these students need personal attention. Most of the tutoring in our academic support center – free of charge to the students, but hugely expensive to the college – is in the developmental sequences. The attrition rate in these courses is significantly higher than in the credit-bearing courses, so between small starting sizes and high attrition, we wind up with relatively little tuition revenue to pay for them. (Yes, we use far too many adjuncts in developmental courses to try to make up some of the difference, but there are limits to that, too.) And with apologies to Tolstoy, 'good' students are mostly the same, but every struggling student struggles in his own way.

To make matters worse, students often recoil when told that they need to take (and pay for) courses that “don't count” towards graduation. These courses stretch out the time and money to complete the degree, and some students see them as conspiracies to separate them from their money. Combine shaky preparation with a suspicious attitude, and the odds of success aren't high.

I've seen different philosophies of remediation. One school says that you need to break everything down into the tiniest possible units, and proceed “step-by-step.” Another says that remediation should be compressed into the shortest time possible. One says that it should be taught 'contextually,' with examples drawn from intended majors; another says that it should all be 'self-paced,' with computers and tutors; another says that it's all about back-to-basics. (For the record, my position can be boiled down to that great line from the movie Wargames, with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy: “Hell, I'd piss on a sparkplug if I thought it'd help!”)

And then there's the school that denies that developmental education should exist at all. If you haven't learned it by 18, this school says, that's your problem.

I'm not a fan of that last one.

In a more perfect world, we'd have the resources to run a whole bunch of experiments locally and see what happens. What happens if we compress three semesters of developmental math into one? What happens if we just throw everybody into freshman comp? (That was the de facto policy at Proprietary U when I was there. It resulted in very low grading standards for freshman comp.) What happens if we go all self-paced, all the time?

We're not there. At best, we can try to glean successes from other schools, as well as our own, and fix what we can, on the fly. We're trying that, and we're participating in a national program that would be entirely too revealing to name, but so far the improvements have been small at best. It's a major issue, and with our K-12 and immigration systems being what they are, it will continue to be a major issue for the foreseeable future.

I'm glad to see that some people with the resources to do comparative work are looking seriously at this. We need all the help we can get.

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