Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Consultation and Conflicts

This piece in the Washington Post -- sent along by a few alert readers -- inadvertently draws attention to one of the consistent dilemmas of established colleges trying to make change.

The article is about helping students avoid, or at least minimize the cost of, the quagmire of remedial course sequences. It notes, correctly, national data showing that students who place into developmental courses but skip them anyway tend to do just as well as students who took them. Tellingly, it cites leaders of several local cc’s claiming that such findings couldn’t possibly apply to their own campuses.

I had to smile.

The first-person exception defeats many a great idea. “That’s probably true in other places, but we know better.” It’s the reason that some jaded administrators either skip the “consult with the folks in the trenches” step, or at least discount it deeply. In some cases, the folks in the trenches have such deep and fundamental conflicts of interest that their ability to respond thoughtfully to evidence is simply defeated. Program reviews, for example, tend not to conclude in suicide notes; they nearly always conclude with calls for more resources.

Worse, the folks in the trenches typically are in only one set of trenches. They see their own program. They don’t see the other programs competing for resources. It’s easy to criticize administrators for focusing too narrowly on numbers, but we have to make decisions about allocating limited resources among competing programs, each with its own passions, anecdotes, and virtues. You have enough money to pay for two new faculty lines, and you have compelling needs in six programs. How do you decide which two get what they want, and which four don’t?

The usual response -- “just consult with the departments” -- doesn’t help. Each department wants its own. That’s understandable, but it limits the usefulness of the input. (The other usual responses -- “say yes to everyone” or “consider excellence” -- are even worse.) At least with data on enrollments and/or adjunct percentages, you have something disinterested to consider. You have a common denominator. It shouldn’t be everything, but when other factors cancel each other out, it’s something.

Say what you want about virtue and academic excellence; at the end of the day, it’s silly to pretend that self-interest doesn’t play a major role in departmental feedback. Departments that rely on developmental courses to maintain their staffing aren’t likely to sign on to proposals to streamline those courses. As they see it -- often incorrectly, but still -- they’d be slitting their own throats.

Colleges with relatively robust traditions of shared governance, such as mine, are likely to fall prey to all the usual failings of interest-group politics. It would be surprising if they didn’t. Taking self-interested testimony at face value will lead to distorted results. Sure, the national data may be clear, but we’re special!

And that’s why I had to smile.

Real progress -- the kind that actually takes account of facts -- requires the willingness, or ability, to get beyond interest-group politics. That means accepting the possibility that a deeply-held and/or very convenient belief may be wrong. In other words, it requires a vanishingly rare set of conditions.

I have faith in the truth, but its progress can be maddeningly slow. In the meantime, we lose students in preventable quagmires.

You left out one important detail in an otherwise stimulating column. How did you avoid/eliminate this quagmire on your campus? Are you just a bemused observer or have you solved the problem?

Was it a data-driven approach where you took one placement group and split it 50/50 between "traditional" and what I would call "up or down" (put them into the higher class and allow them to move down to the placement level if they are failing)? It isn't clear if the national study was controlled or if the "skip" students had higher motivation.

I know the argument from folks teaching at the next level, because students currently enter that level of math very unprepared for it, but that might not change with less "prep". It all depends on whether the graduates of the "prep" classes used to be REALLY bad, or if they merely retained little or nothing from that process.

What I know is that many students can't write a decent paragraph in a lab report after passing a year of college-level english and often fail to retain things they demonstrated on last semester's final exam, so it might be that prep classes also have little effect for any but the returning students who have been out of school for a decade.
For every Monica Dekany (a student who couldn't hack the placement exam, but did fine once she took more advanced math course), how many students fail miserably at those math courses and leave school?

As much as Jay brings up a legitimate point (placement along the remedial tracks for math and english needs improvement), his finger-pointing and smarminess really angered me. I've taught students who were in math classes they had no business taking (both at community colleges and state flagship universities) and it wasted both their and my time.

My proposed solution would be to have students take actual graded midterms and finals for remedial classes (math and English) from years past until the students cannot pass the midterms and finals, rather than rely on computer aided exams. The problem (and solution) is that someone has to spend the time to grade these midterms and finals. Fortunately, there are usually people at every institution (called adjuncts) who are willing to be paid to grade exams en-masse, and students who are willing to pay to get placed properly.
Psychometrics isn't an exact science: The very best placement test places only about 2/3 of students correctly. Out here in California, we're required to use multiple measures for student placement.

Wait a minute. As is typical for Jay's column, he seems to miss the real problem. I quote: "Monica Dekany, a California mom who, because she failed a community college placement test, was forced to take remedial classes for courses in which she had already earned credit elsewhere and, as officials eventually conceded, didn’t need." (emphasis mine).

Isn't this really about credit transfer, and not really about remedial classes? If her credits had transferred properly, she wouldn't have had to take a placement exam in the first place.

Or am I missing something?
@richard: no.

So the result is that remedial classes are a net wash? That the frustration more or less balances any information being transmitted?

Well, didn't y'all tell us that your math department doesn't hire based on capacity to teach remedial math? Stop the presses! Your math teachers are probably not great at raising gardenias, either.
The kids who skip the remedial classes and the kids who don't skip the remedial classes are likely to be different types of kids.

It's possible that the former group think that they don't need the remedial class because they are confident in their abilities i.e. they think the placement test got it wrong.

The latter may think that they do need the remedial course because they believe the placement test got it right.

If this is so then the action taken by the students seems to have been the best outcome for them i.e. the former, the latter and the rest all did about the same.

If so this doesn't mean a change in remediation but a change in the test.
The math department is not clinging to its marginal adjuncts who teach its lowest-level remedial class. What they are reluctant to lose is the gate that keeps the most woefully unsuccessful students out of the classes that the full-time faculty teach. As long as the administration evaluates teaching based on success rates and popularity with students, the math department will do everything that it can to keep the most hopeless of the clueless from making its numbers look any worse. Even if this means supporting a bloated remedial sequence staffed by adjuncts who can't teach their way out of a paper bag.
How is this not primarily a self-selection issue? The students who on average know they are more capable skip the remedial courses; the students who know they legitimately bombed the placement exam know to take the development courses. Of course there might not be significant differences in future performance -- that certainly doesn't mean there's no benefit to the remedial classes.
"Program reviews, for example, tend not to conclude in suicide notes"

This observation (which I may well be taking to a committee conversation next week) is a perfect example of the kind of conflict of interest that seems to be particularly prevalent in academic environments. I would also add the tendency, by media and others, to rely on pronouncements by Professor Whoever of Discipline X saying "Discipline X is essential for the jobs of the future" (or even "the situation is serious - we're not graduating enough people with Discipline X degrees; this will have grave national economic consequences"). Of course someone whose personal livelihood depends on keeping enrollments up is going to find "evidence" that their discipline is essential to the future!

Show me a Professor of Discipline X who is willing to say there is a good reason that Discipline X is fading in importance and so of course it will need fewer staff/resources over the next 10 years, and I'll show you a student who voluntarily pays double tuition to help the college's budget.
I have to agree with anon 3:00. It might be that the students who skip the prep class do fine with an awful lot of extra attention in office hours, etc of the faculty. And I think it is fair to say that faculty teaching these often large service courses are entitled to an opinion that their courses go a lot smoother if everyone comes in with a certain level of knowledge. Some might call that protecting their own, but is that really so bad?
Anon@3:00pm -
Based on your remarks, there must be a wide variation across the country in how and where "prep" classes are taught.

At my community college, the remedial classes are not taught in the "Math department" or "English department". Further, apart from semesters where there is an unusually large influx of poorly prepared students, about half of those classes are taught by full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty who specialize in teaching remedial (middle to high school level) classes.

PS -
Kudos to richard for pointing out the limits on the only datum actually cited in that article. One other flaw in the earlier article about this same topic is that it is simply false to claim that placement tests trump the SAT at every college. We only use a placement test when the SAT is too low to be reliable.
"What they are reluctant to lose is the gate that keeps the most woefully unsuccessful students out of the classes that the full-time faculty teach."

I'd like to emphasize that this isn't bad! Truly lousy students can drag down a whole class, and faculty are often dragooned into an endless waste of time tutoring people who think that doing the same failure over and over is the same thing as learning.

The hideous failure rates of remedial math are something CCs are refusing to take on seriously, so faculty are forced to make do.
"The hideous failure rates of remedial math are something CCs are refusing to take on seriously, so faculty are forced to make do."

How are you drawing the line between CCs and Faculty?
Joe makes an excellent point. But it seems like there is zero response at the institutional level (experimenting with class structures, hiring for talent in teaching remedial math, etc), and at least some response at the level of individual teachers (trying to keep obviously unprepared students out of classes, study groups, etc).
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