Friday, January 22, 2010


In Which a Reader Hits a Nerve

A longtime correspondent writes:

Is there anyone who specializes in remedial education, especially math? Or is it kind of farmed out? I ask this, because I'm working on becoming an economics instructor, but I've actually gotten pretty good at remedial math out of gross necessity (my students are not remotely prepared for my courses). How does that work?

(gulp) (adjust tie) (wipe sweat from brow)

A terrible confession: although the majority of the math sections taught at most cc's fall into the developmental or intermediate categories, full-time faculty frequently aren't hired with an eye to that. Generally -- with noble exceptions -- you'll find higher concentrations of adjuncts at the lower end of the curriculum, even though that's where the students need the most (and best) instruction. Depending on where you are, it may be typical to require a master's degree in math to teach any level of math at all.

For the record, I consider this insane. The research on student attrition is pretty clear that developmental math is the highest-risk part of the curriculum; I recall Kay McClenney commenting at a presentation once that students who fail developmental English generally come back to try again, but students who fail developmental math usually just walk away. Yet it's still unusual to see candidates present themselves as developmental specialists, and I've never seen a graduate degree in teaching developmental math. (I hope that's just a function of my own limited experience, and that there are such programs out there. Readers who know of any are invited to share in the comments.)

In my own experience, it has been a real struggle to find instructors who both love and excel at teaching developmental math. I found (and hired) one at Proprietary U: he was a former high school math teacher who got tired of public-school politics and wanted to teach algebra in a less regimented setting. Although it was many years ago, I remember my class observation clearly. He was gentle and patient with the students, literally walking from desk to desk, helping each student individually work through the problem on the board. Even students who failed the class loved him, and asked for him by name when they came back for a second try (which, in his case, they usually did). If I could figure out how to find more like him, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

There's an ongoing debate in the cc world about whether developmental classes should be housed in their disciplinary departments, or in a department like 'preparatory studies.' The advantage of the former is that it becomes difficult to ghettoize the program. The advantage of the latter is that recruitment is less likely to focus on traits that don't usually lend themselves to enthusiastically embracing developmental courses. I've sided with the former so far, since I haven't seen the latter done well. Again, though, I'm open to counterexamples.

So for this, I turn for guidance to my wise and worldly readers. Are there graduate programs that specialize in teaching people to teach developmental math? Can candidates with this inclination be spotted in some sort of reliable way? And is there more merit to the 'preparatory studies' model than I've assumed so far?

This subject is near and dear to my heart. I started my career as an engineer and got a Masters in Applied Statistics along the way to help with my work in industry.

Then I had a son who has special needs. In doing research on how to help him learn, I rediscovered my love of math. I started tutoring special needs students at my local cc and now I adjunct.

I love teaching remedial math. I am a firm believer that the students can master the material if the instruction is excellent and the students are committed. And I'm a firm believer that in our high technology culture, everyone needs to be mathematically literate.

Our local cc does not have a remedial math instructor slot. Only full time faculty are allowed to teach above College Algebra so if the department hired someone to teach remedial classes only then it would limit their ability to offer the hire level classes. I don't know if all community college have this restriction.

I have observed some of the full time faculty and talked with many of them. I think they all teach very well, including the remedial classes but that they like having a variety of classes and a variety of math students to teach.
Sorry, I meant higher level class.

I guess my mind is on applying for jobs.
To the best of my knowledge at my CC, most of the remedial math courses are taught by adjuncts simply because of the number of sections we offer. This semester, we're offering almost 160 sections of math courses; 73 of them are developmental. With only 11 FT faculty, we don't have enough FT people to really do those developmental courses justice. I believe that our math department makes an effort to have some "FT presence" in the developmental courses, but there's not usually a problem finding qualified adjuncts (usu. high school teachers) who want to teach them. I think they have more trouble finding people to teach the more advanced courses at a high enough level to satisfy transfer schools, but that's just my impression.

We do have one FT math instructor with experience in developmental math, but she tends to teach math to students in our elementary ed programs (i.e., students who want to teach elementary school students).
At my CC the developmental math and developmental English folks have the same dean. I think this makes a lot of sense, as they seem to have the same "issues".

I teach a lot of logic (in philosophy) which is in the "mathematical and logical reasoning" part of the transfer curriculum. About 95% of my students are in the course because it provides college credit without having to do one or more developmental math courses.

Although I complain about them, most of my student s are very bright, ambitious and dedicated -- Most of them say they took a decent amount of math in high school, but could not test into college algebra. As a result, I have to wonder about the disconnect between the local high schools and the math placement process.
Sad thing is that your very capable high school algebra teacher was driven out the high school where algebra should have been taught.
I'm a high school teacher in a town where the local cc and univ both have high numbers of developmental courses. There is a lot of discussion about why there is such a need (read: clearly the HS is not preparing students) but generally those discussions don't include the population itself: mostly kids who didn't like or "get" high school, or have realized that they DO need an education and are making up for lost time. I'm glad they have a place to go locally, but I would advise caution about saying that the need for developmental courses is a result of some lack at the high school level.
Having said that, I agree that the teachers these kids need most are usually more interested in teaching a higher-level course with "easier" students who look more successful at the end.
Hi, OP here. How can I get hired as a full time econ/developmental math person? My experience is that my math students explode into awesome once they realize that there's an application for all this heady stuff.
While it is an attractive thought to have a 'preparatory studies' program or department, my experience is that such programs are indeed ghetto-ized or at best, looked down on by the 'real' math and English departments.

A compromise solution is to hire developmental math specialists as full-time faculty, with the job of teaching and more importantly, coordinating the pre-college math program. This latter function is crucial, otherwise you end up with a large number of adjunct faculty pulling in different directions.

I am not aware of specific graduate programs dedicated to teaching pre-college math, but there are certainly grad students who conducted research into remedial math teaching as part of their dissertation. We recently advertised for a Developmental Math Specialist, and found several such individuals.

Teaching remedial-level math is indeed a challenge, yet too often I hear folks tell me that pretty much anyone can do it, because it doesn't require a high degree of math knowledge to teach. In fact, few of us can do it well. The fact that a faculty member has an advanced degree in Mathematics is no assurance whatsoever in this regard. We look more for folks with Math Education degrees to teach our developmental classes
The upshot of these comments seems to be that community colleges hire, to teach remedial math, the same high school teachers who failed to teach the students math in the first place.
The focus of an instructor in introductory mathematics courses should be on the ways in which people learn, not the amount of mathematics the instructor knows. We recently hired a mathematics PhD and he is wondering why beginning algebra students don't just "get it" from his lectures. My snarky reply to that is "why would they 'get it' from you when they've heard it before and didn't get it then?" Lectures worked fine when the students were an elite class of individuals. Since education is now mandatory for all and not all people learn by lecture, dropping a math PhD in the room who learned successfully by lecture is not often (ever?) going to lead to increased passing grades.

The aim should be on hiring people who have a background in the field of education, not just the field of mathematics. (before you ask, I have a PhD in Math Ed)

With respect to the incessant call for applications for the mathematics in an introductory algebra course, I say pshaw! The students know the word problems in the book are facetious and watered down to the point meaninglessness just so an application can be demonstrated. I say be honest with the students: this is intro material! You need an understanding of it on its own within its own field before it is applied in the real world.

I now await the replies from people who have done algebra in the grocery checkout line or have actually calculated how many pounds of $1.50/lb peanuts and $5.75/lb almonds to mix together to have a mix that sells for $2.50/lb.
The upshot of these comments seems to be that community colleges hire, to teach remedial math, the same high school teachers who failed to teach the students math in the first place.

In a totally different environment, though. Math is frequently bottom of the HS totem pole, in an environment that isn't really noted for rewarding academics anyway.

If I could eliminate all my kids who didn't want to be there, who were actively disruptive and determined to be the centre of attention and show that they were in charge of the classroom, I'd have almost no failures. But I can't — I'm forced to accept kids who are there on court order (attend school or go to jail), kids who are misplaced (can't add, but in advanced math because that's what fits their timetable or that's what psycho parent insisted on), miss lots of classes (like to hang out with their friend, until caught and dumped back in my room by VP)…

Last year I had way too many failures, all in the same class with a boy who did everything I listed above. Kids who needed some attention, who needed a supportive environment, but instead got a room where an oversized lout took up half of every period, stole supplies and books from anyone, and so managed to drag 1/4 of the class into failure with him. This year, with the same course and almost identical students (minus the lout) I have no failures.

Admin was very supportive: they warned him that if he didn't behave he would be kicked out — twice a week for the entire year.
There's an interesting juxtaposition between this post and yesterday's "Ph.D's at CC's," especially since much (most?) of the work we do at CC's is remediation.

I certainly wouldn't want to argue that someone with a Ph.D. is incapable of teaching remedial math or English or whatever, but should a Ph.D. be required--or is it even desirable--to do so?

In the provinces writes: "The upshot of these comments seems to be that community colleges hire, to teach remedial math, the same high school teachers who failed to teach the students math in the first place."

To the contrary, we hire the ones who DID teach students math in the first place. Our superior working conditions (we can throw a student out of class) allow us to be very selective. Besides, we can't (but also won't) hire a "out of area" teacher even as an adjunct, whereas our local schools regularly use math teachers who do not have a degree in math.

Anonymous at 7:31AM writes: "I would advise caution about saying that the need for developmental courses is a result of some lack at the high school level."

Of course, because some of them have come to college after many years out of school. Four years in the Marines will soften your math skills a lot. Those students generally succeed, by the way.

But I would caution making that claim more generally without data. We have found a clear correlation between placement into remedial math classes and whether they got a "high pass" or "low pass" on the high school exit exam. A low pass almost guarantees placement into a class that I equate to the first algebra class that my generation had in 6th or 7th grade.

Regarding the original quesion:

Our college puts developmental classes (both math and english) in their own department. They do their own hiring based on issues wholly unrelated to the ability teach college algebra. It is not a ghetto, and it is not overwhelmingly filled with adjuncts unless you are dumb enough to count people rather than sections. Over 40% of the sections are taught by full time faculty, and a large fraction of the rest are taught by long term adjuncts with a full load. (We run just below 50% in "real" math classes, and both numbers are diluted this year because of the enrollment surge.) The fraction taught by full-time faculty is highest for the most basic course, and they rarely let faculty from the "real" departments teach their students.

That department hires from a wide range of backgrounds, as does the regular math department. When they do hire someone with a math ed degree, I know from discussions with those professors that they are only interested in whether that person can apply ed research in the classroom and understands that success is not measured by a passing rate, but by success in the next class up the ladder.

Regarding what Anne Dwyer wrote, we have no rule about adjuncts teaching above college algebra, but that assignment always appears to be a VERY deliberate one. However, based only on the entry statistics for our college, only a VERY small college would be unable to sustain a full time remedial math teacher who only taught classes at the three levels we have that are below college algebra. And that isn't even counting the gen ed math classes for liberal arts majors that do not require college algebra.

Of course, our public schools could be a lot worse than yours, so YMMV, but look at the example Transferase gave. Their problem isn't the number of sections, it is the number of FT math faculty. Looks to me like they cover fewer than 1/3 of the math classes. If I compared our numbers to those, you would be stunned.
I know this isn't answering the question the original poster asked, but it might be tangentially relevant to developmental math (I don't know, as I don't have first-hand experience with it):

I've long felt that our math requirements are poorly chosen for many students. Sure, for engineers and scientists, it's important to learn algebra and calculus. But for everyone? For all the liberal arts majors? It's basically a hazing ritual: forcing them to go through something they'll probably never use in their life, just because someone somewhere feels it's "good for them". It's no wonder that many students are unmotivated to learn it, when it's not connected to anything useful or to any of their interests.

Personally, I feel that for many students, a course on numeracy might be more interesting and useful than a required course on algebra or calculus.

(I say this as a math major and an engineer, who absolutely loves the material. But at the same time I realize that my passion is not the same as everyone's passion, and I see no reason to force it on students for whom it won't be highly useful.)
@Anonymous: I have used algebra in 'real life' exactly once. I was making fudge, and had mistakenly bought condensed rather than evaporated milk, and had to calculate how much to change the amount of milk and sugar in the recipe. (Condensed milk has sugar added, which changes the quantity of milk per volume.) I felt pretty good about myself until I forgot to stir and it burned...
I teach at a CC in CA. We have a Basic Skills department. The 2 FT math profs in that department have their offices in the math department with us. They are both great teachers. We have 6 FT profs in the math department. The basic skills profs regularly teach a class or two in the math department, sometimes actually college level.

(Only arithmetic and pre-algebra are in the basic skills department. Beginning and intermediate algebra are in the math department, even though neither is considered college level.)

I love teaching beginning algebra when I can get the behavior issues out of the way within the first couple weeks. But I haven't always been successful at that, and those sections are very painful.

I usually like having one section of beginning algebra and a few higher level courses. I get to play with deeper mathematical ideas at the higher levels, but I get to make a bigger difference in people's lives at the lower levels.
For some reason, the people I meet who have trouble with empathy or following basic logical arguments don't tend to have algebra either. It's not that algebra is itself massively useful, but the symbolic manipulation and capacity for abstraction which it embodies seems to be good for human brains.
Every semester I have about 120 students who tested into developmental math. Of that 120, 10-15 will drop or withdraw, another 5 or so will earn a D.

The remaining 100 or so will work hard and earn a C or better in symbolic logic. They cannot earn a C unless and until they can complete a proof in symbolic logic.

These students aren't dumb and they are pretty motivated because they need this class for their programs. The large majority of them recently took HS math and had decent grades (I ask), and the majority of them needed TWO developmental math courses before they could qualify to take college algebra. Again, I have to wonder about the disconnect between HS math and college math placement... something is wrong, as my CC teaches about 9 sections of logic every semester.
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