Monday, March 26, 2012

Connecticut Goes for Broke

Several alert readers sent me links to this piece from the Hartford Courant.  Apparently, the Nutmeg state is considering abolishing standalone remedial courses in community colleges altogether, starting in 2014.  They’ll allow colleges to replace them with “as needed” remediation offered in the context of credit-bearing courses.

I have to admire the chutzpah, though I haven’t a clue how it could work.  I’ll be following the experiment with considerable interest.

The rationale for the change is hard to dispute.  Apparently, Connecticut community colleges statewide have a four-year graduation rate of 13 percent, which is low even by sector standards.  (To be fair, with the exception of Alaska, there’s a nearly inverse relationship between four-year graduation rates by state and two-year graduation rates by state.  It’s about the student population finding its way into each sector.)  

It wasn’t long ago that Connecticut centralized control of its community colleges.  Now it’s considering the kind of broad strokes that centralization makes possible.  That can be very good, or it can be disastrous.  In this case, possibly both.

The upside is clear.  Graduation rates -- or even just rates of making it to 100-level classes -- are not good for students who start in developmental courses.  Students who have more than a semester of developmental work do particularly badly.  Research from the CCRC suggests that the drivers of poor outcomes are a combination of a greater number of possible exit points -- the longer it takes, the more time for life to get in the way -- and the incredible demotivating effect of being told that nothing you’re doing really counts.

But I’m having trouble envisioning the logistics of it.

Let’s say you have 30 students in a section of English 101.  20 of them require some level of remediation, but the levels required range from just-a-brushup to here’s-how-to-write-a-sentence.  As near as I can figure, at the end of the 101 meeting, the ten students who don’t need remediation would leave, and the 20 left behind would get some sort of attention.  

The instructor would need absolutely heroic range to reach all of those students at appropriate levels.  Alternately, if you had multiple sections running simultaneously, the followup classes could be grouped by ability, but at that point in the absence of a lockstep curriculum in 101 you’d have serious discontinuity issues.  That would defeat much of the pedagogical gain that could otherwise be realized through just-in-time remediation.  Or you could do a lockstep curriculum, but that would likely be pretty demoralizing to the faculty.

Alternately, you could do drop-in remediation and rely on students to know what they need and when they need it.  But I’d strongly advise against it.  As Kay McClenney likes to say, students don’t do optional; if they aren’t forced into the extra help, they’ll underuse it, and the fail rates will reflect that.

However Connecticut engineers it, I’d advocate giving serious thought in advance to how they would define success.  Comparing pass rates of the “new” English 101 to the previous 101 will almost certainly suggest terrible failure, since the previous one featured only those students who had already made it through (or bypassed) remediation.  The relevant measures, I’d think, would include success rates in the followup course (Composition 2, say), graduation, and measures of student outcomes on defined learning objectives.  Even if the pass rates in 101 are abruptly lower than they once were, they may still be higher than the combined pass rates of two semesters of remediation plus 101.  Ultimately, if more students make it into comp 2, you’ll know it “worked.”

If I were advising Connecticut -- Nutmeg state readers are invited to pass this along to whomever -- I’d suggest having some campuses try the new system while other ones stick with the old one.  Do that for a few years, then compare the results.  If you see a significant improvement, finish the shift; if you see a significant decline, revert to the status quo ante.  Centralization doesn’t have to mean standardization.  This is a chance to run a wonderful experiment with national implications.  Otherwise, it’s just another state-level policy change.

Good luck, Connecticut.  It’s a brave move.  I’ll be curious to see if it’s bold or foolhardy.