Monday, February 28, 2011



(Filed from the conference of The League for Innovation in the Community College, in a surprisingly chilly San Diego.)

I missed last year’s conference of the League for Innovation, so with a little distance, I’ve noticed some changes. The most striking is the sudden omnipresence of for-profits. The lanyards for the nametags bear the logo of Cappella University. Terry O’Banion, the former President of the League, did plugs for Walden U and Cappella U during his talk. Panels that are listed as if they were the fruits of research turn out to be designed to hawk software from a given vendor, which is the presenter’s “secondary” affiliation. It used to be that clear commercialism was mostly limited to the exhibition hall, where it was expected; now it’s becoming the content of presentations.

I’ve also been struck by the virtual disappearance of the phrase “community college movement.” In years past, I heard that a lot. This year, the only people who’ve used the phrase have been folks with “emeritus” in their titles. During the keynote, by Allan Golston of the Gates Foundation, I heard instead discussion of a “reform movement” for community colleges. The distinction is generational, and it gives me hope.

Anyway, a few observations thus far:

- At a wonderfully informative panel geared towards people applying for community college presidencies, I noticed that the audience was more than two-to-one female. That’s consistent with what I’ve seen at statewide meetings in my own state at every level below the presidency. Change is coming, and it’s coming soon.

- Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal a lot. Both of the speakers at the “future presidents” panel referred to “applying for your first presidency,” as if a second and third are simply assumed. It was a little jarring. One speaker recommended targeting a single campus of a multi-campus system for a first presidency, since the chancellor offers a buffer with the Board. Kind of a “starter” presidency. It had never even occurred to me to think of that.

- Judging by the discussion, the quality of Boards of Trustees varies pretty widely across the country. I can honestly say that I’m lucky on that count.

- Terry O’Banion spoke of the “New Normal” for community colleges. He got off one great line -- “we accept the top 100 percent of our applicants” -- but otherwise did a fairly predictable discussion of declining funding, rising enrollments, and the rise of the for-profits. I was a little taken aback when he used statistics about a forthcoming great wave of retirements from college administrations -- I could swear I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before -- to plug the for-profit educational leadership graduate program he runs. So it goes.

- The highlight thus far was a panel on developmental education. It featured two women from the Community College Research Center at Columbia, and one woman from the math department at Los Medanos College in California. Nikki Edgecombe, from the CCRC, is clearly a rising star; expect to hear from her in the future. She mentioned that one study the CCRC did of community colleges in Virginia in 2009 that showed that students who managed to evade developmental classes, even though they had “placed” into them, did just as well in college-level courses as students who actually did what they were told. She also pointed out that failing classes and dropping out are two different things, and that national data suggests that a surprising number of students drop out after passing developmental classes.

- Prof. Myra Snell, from Los Medanos, coined a wonderful word: “stupiphany.” She defined it as that sudden realization that you were an idiot for not knowing something before. The major “stupiphany” she offered was the realization that the primary driver of student attrition in math sequences isn’t any one class; it’s the length of the sequence. Each additional class provides a new exit point; if you want to reduce the number who leave, you need to reduce the number of exit points. If you assume three levels of remediation (fairly standard) and one college-level math class, and you assume a seventy percent pass rate at each level (which would be superhuman for the first level of developmental, but never mind that), then about 24 percent will eventually make it through the first college-level class. Reduce the sequence by one course, and 34 percent will. Accordingly, she’s working on “just in time” remediation in the context of a college-level course. There is definitely something to this.

- The keynote was a talk-show style interview by Mark Milliron of Allan Golston. They’re both working with the Gates foundation. The audio was godawful -- it sounded like the old 16 mm movies we used to see in elementary school when the sprockets skipped -- but from what I could actually hear, the content was heartening. Golston noted that developmental ed is the “Bermuda Triangle of higher education,” especially for adult students, for whom “time is the enemy.” He (correctly) noted the irrationality of measuring learning in units of seat time, calling for diagnostic exams that are diagnostic enough to allow students to take only what they actually need. The highlight for me, though, was at the end, when he addressed the need to be “radically practical.” In that context, he noted that a failure to address cost when discussing possible improvements actually does real harm.

Past conferences have featured more nostalgia, more swing-for-the-cheap-seats idealism, and more clubbiness among members of the founding generation. This one is notably more focused on cost and practicality. It seems more lightly attended -- the keynote audience was more than half empty -- but the questions far more relevant and useful. On to day two!

the primary driver of student attrition in math sequences isn’t any one class; it’s the length of the sequence

I'll believe that, and as a data-driven college we might even have data on the value of our shift from one to two pre-college courses in composition after a few more years. I was told that this was done to separate the ones with HUGE problems from those who simply need a semester of remediation. Perhaps the effect is to make that first course on a longer road into a "motivation" admissions test for our weakest students.

“just in time” remediation

We are trying that, using a software package that makes this more practical. This must harder on our part time faculty, but the full timers endorse it. Some of us are looking at it in higher level classes.
Shorter version of the speech: entering community college students can't pass high school math (to say nothing of college level), so let's abolish the math requirement.
As far as the math thing goes...
I'm very biased because the first community college class I took was intermediate algebra (remedial, but not the lowest remedial course). I found it quite useful... but then, you have to keep in mind, the last formal instruction I'd had in math was midway through fifth grade.
On the other hand, the diagnostic test was untimed and low pressure. I did well- I was right on the cusp of testing into the college level course (if someone who had ever taken an algebra course had gotten my score, they probably would have been happy to let them go into the first college-level course in the sequence).

So yeah. If you can't pass high school math (because you've never taken high school math) maybe the best thing you can do is start college math.
I love all of the energy spent on pretending that the for-profits aren't just a quirk of Pell Grant law, offering an inferior product at a massively inflated price.
I'm really taking to heart the comments about the length of the developmental math sequence. At my CC, students could take up to FIVE courses before they reach college-level math. Using the same 70% pass rate per course, that yields a 17% success rate coming out of the full dev ed sequence, and 12% coming out of the first college-level math class. In actuality, we are seeing numbers even worse than that, no doubt because we don't achieve a 70% pass rate in most pre-college math classes.

As CCPhysicist noted, we too are moving to something similar to, 'just-in-time remediation' using math software in a lab setting.
If you assume three levels of remediation (fairly standard) and one college-level math class, and you assume a seventy percent pass rate at each level (which would be superhuman for the first level of developmental, but never mind that), then about 24 percent will eventually make it through the first college-level class. Reduce the sequence by one course, and 34 percent will.

That's assuming a fixed pass rate, though. If you cram the same amount of remedial material into two courses instead of three, then you should expect the pass rate to go down.
Yeah, the pass rate is not fixed. And it would be deeply flawed and ironic to talk about math education without pointing that out.

Of course, if all went the way one would hope, we'd presume that passing the earlier course makes passing the next course more likely.

On the other hand, crazy as it might sound, it's possible that the pass rates are dependent but work against each other. That is, if you pass a remedial algebra class, maybe it makes it *less* likely that you'll pass a remedial trig class.

Dean Dad, how impossible *would* it be to take two closely matched cohorts of students and have them take different remedial math schedules? I mean, ideally I think you'd want 3 groups- one that is taking your current math sequence, one that is taking one that is shorter, and one that is taking one that is shorter and also cheaper (i.e. fewer credit hours to pay for). Because I wonder how much of the attrition factor is just people getting fed up with paying for credits that are 'worthless'.
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