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.

I'll vouch for this remark about developmental classes in your article: "the incredible demotivating effect of being told that nothing you’re doing really counts". I've heard that alluded to many times when advising students, as they politely (and wistfully) ask which classes actually count toward a degree. That is a really sad situation.

One thing we do, but not well, is to have a few "credit" classes in among all of the non-credit ones.

That said, I have colleagues who teach various levels of developmental classes as well as those at the boundary (ENG101 or Almost College Algebra). They have my utmost sympathy and I can't see how such a change would make their lives better.

However, on the math side I can see where there is a large overlap between the developmental class and the credit class. This is needed because students forget so much between classes. With that as a given, it could be that the only students who really NEED the developmental math classes are those who have been out of school for years, never took that level of math in HS, or went to a failed school.
There is excellent evidence coming out of the Teachers College Community College Research Center ( about the overuse of developmental courses, the massive problems with the testing process and the demoralizing impact of developmental classes. They estimate that 1/3rd of developmental students would pass just fine if they started the regular course. If that is the case than I see it as our ethical responsibility to give them the chance.

Concurrent remediation is never going to fix the really bad ones. Then again most of those should never have graduated from high school in the first place. It WILL fix those who are rusty, those who learned some but not all of the material previously, and those who are motivated. And it will SAVE that 1/3rd who might give up when placed in an unnecessary remedial course.

Maybe going cold turkey on developmental/remedial classes is the best way to get over our addiction to them.
I live in CT, a state that is not "going for broke," it is already broke.
This looks a little like a Hobson's Choice: do the students who'll be OK w/o remediation a favor, but ditch the ones who won't into a situation that they're even less likely to succeed in than they would in a remedial class. Because those students will be having to do the regular work PLUS the remedial work; they will be slammed.
I agree with what Anon 12:25 said. I'm a math instructor, and it is very clear after teaching several developmental math courses that there are some students who might do fine without them, but there are many students who wouldn't do fine without them. Getting rid of developmental courses will build an impossible gap for the most unprepared students. I think a better solution is a combination of the following:

* Switch from a single placement test to a more holistic approach to student placement. This could include possible retests, consideration of high school transcripts, or other factors.

* Develop module-based developmental courses so that students can take things at their own pace and focus only in the areas in which they're struggling. There are computer-assisted learning programs out there that are getting better and better as time goes on.

* Require students who really need the developmental work to also spend time with a tutor. Often times this one-on-one work can quickly find a student's knowledge gap and get them turned around more quickly.

* Require students who are taking developmental courses to take a course on study skills. I cannot tell you how much time I spend in office hours explaining to students how to study. I'm sure not every instructor does this (or even knows how), and someone with a good amount of experience with this might be able to make a real difference.
Um, about the mandatory study skills courses...

In my grad school days, I earned my tuition for a couple of years by teaching mandatory study skills courses to students on academic probation. (I don't know what I did to deserve that assignment.) Honestly, many of these students DID need it. But making students pay for and sit through a class that they see as a punishment and a waste of time and money, isn't a highly effective way to change their habits.

What I learned from that teaching assignment has a lot to do with the study skill aids I now routinely build into my 100-level courses for all students, and I think that works much better than a separate class. So I agree that there needs to be support, but I don't think adding to the non-credit courseload is the best way to do it.
7:43 Anonymous: It's 4:40 Anonymous. I also try to build study skills into my lower level courses, but there are a lot of students who need a lot more work in that area than I'm able to provide when I also have to get through six chapters of mathematical content in the semester. Also, these are the sorts of things that are often better explored one-on-one. I have some students who don't study enough. I have some students who study too much. And unless someone has the time to sit down with these students individually and tell them which category they fall into, some of them will never learn. Many do this through office hours, but many don't because they are optional.

You can call/deliver/bundle them however you want, but many students very clearly need this, and as was said before, they have to be mandatory or students won't go.

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