Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Make‘em Pay?

Community college folk often complain, when getting blamed for high remediation rates, that what’s really being measured is the performance of the local high schools.  A state senator in Tennessee is proposing to base budgets on that.

State Senator Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is proposing to make students’ high school districts reimburse the students for the remedial classes that students need when they arrive at community college.

To which I say, wow.

The knee-jerk appeal is strong.  For recent graduates -- and to his credit, Senator Gardenhire confines it to recent graduates, so we’re not talking about folks who’ve been out of school for ten years -- rustiness shouldn’t be a major issue.  From a student perspective, paying for courses to fill in gaps that your high school left seems like punishing the victim.  From a community college perspective, getting blamed for high remediation rates (and shouldering the cost of those rates) hardly seems fair; if a student shows up underprepared, you don’t blame the place she showed up.  

But it still doesn’t sit right with me.  

On a really basic level, it would further impoverish the school districts that are already struggling the most.  If a school district is doing a poor job, it’s probably not because it has too much money.  Draining funds from schools that are already strapped isn’t likely to lead anywhere good. It would be like draining funds from fire departments in cities with lots of fires.

Mechanically, it would be a missed opportunity.  If the school districts were invoiced directly, rather than doing reimbursements, students could conserve their Pell eligibility for future semesters.  With Pell eligibility reduced to twelve semesters, that matters.

Beyond that, though, the bill would work against innovations that involve embedding extra help into college-level classes.  Isolating charges for remedial courses presumes the existence of freestanding remedial courses, but the most interesting and hopeful trends involve moving away from that model.  The Accelerated Learning Program, developed by the Community College of Baltimore County, directs students straight into credit-bearing courses, and pairs up developmental sections to provide just-in-time, as-needed extra help.  It’s expensive, but it has shown promising results, especially in English.  Saddling high schools with the cost for that could kneecap efforts to improve the high schools, and thereby defeat the purpose.

Rather than punishing poverty, I’d prefer to see resources directed to ways to prevent the need for remediation in the first place.  Start by requiring four years of math in high school; I maintain that any state that fails to do that has no standing to criticize community colleges.  If the students are in high school anyway, why not teach them math?  It may make sense to use the senior year to solidify and review the basics for some students, but that’s a fair sight better than nothing.  If it sets the students up to succeed in college, it’s worth it.

And let’s loosen the rules (and the pursestrings) to enable building on reforms that actually work.  That could mean early college high schools, the ALP model, self-paced models, or all manner of other things.  It doesn’t mean fitting the square peg into the round hole by just pushing harder.  

Whether Senator Gardenhire’s bill is enacted or not, though, I’m happy to see the discussion.  Ultimately, the solution to remediation will have to involve conceiving of K-12 and higher ed as part of a larger ecosystem.  Whether that means the Common Core or not, it’s counterproductive for the two systems to continue to talk past each other.  I’d prefer to start with voice, rather than invoice, but I’ll give credit for sparking discussion.  

The way to game the system is for CCs to require more and more remediation (as long as they can make a profit out of it).

The high schools will have the incentive to recommend their students bypass CCs.

^^^ MPledger@6:00pm

You seem to be under the misconception that state universities are standing in line to recruit students with lower SAT scores than you even knew existed, or no test scores at all.
"... pairs up developmental sections to provide just-in-time, as-needed extra help. It’s expensive, but it has shown promising results, especially in English"

No surprise there. They haven't skipped any HS English classes like they do math, but they do have trouble with the kinds of grammar questions on the placement test. I'd guess that is because of what they have read and how their writing was evaluated. (Our schools teach to the graduation exam, particularly its writing prompt. Anything else is not relevant.) IMO, it is also important that they all think they can write, so they don't take the developmental class seriously. Coaching can focus on the skills they lack while they read and write more than they have in the past.

Math, on the other hand, is something they have been taught that they cannot do. Many seem to be getting by in HS algebra despite not being able to do grade school fractions. Your point about that is spot on, but they need to teach it in grade school first.
I probably have a lot of misconceptions since I don't live in America. However, I hear there are certain private colleges that aren't very choosey and HS's might start telling students that they are better off looking for work or having a gap year (which usually end up being way longer than a year) etc.

My point was that the incentives are really perverse.
Pressure schools to pass students even if they don't do any work or bother to try to learn, force schools to keep behavioural problems in class interfering with those that try to learn, then penalize schools when those kids graduate.

Anything wrong with this picture? Because unless he's proposing that schools get the authority to actually control what level/program a student is in, this sounds tailor-made to finish destroying the school system.
Schools are prisons. The punitive model applies to both staff and students.

The biggest problem with requiring four years of math in high school is that, in less there's some model I'm unaware of, you're actually requiring a student to pass four years worth of math classes before graduating, which is a very different thing indeed than making them think about math every year.

I teach in a state that requires, basically, everyone to pass Algebra II to graduate high school (there are some nuances, but they're not important to this post). Even with that (which should take no more than 3 years), I'll see students placed into the next course in the sequence because "they can't re-take it in credit recovery until they fail it", which has resulted in me having seniors sitting in an Algebra II class despite having yet to pass any other math class while they also "work on the rest of math in credit recovery" because we wouldn't want them to not graduate on time, would we? That would make our stats look bad! We can't give up on their chance to graduate with their class. As you can imagine, this does not make for the most productive Algebra II classes. It would be even worse if they weren't allowed to repeat a course even ONCE before ending up on "fail everything so you can take it in credit recovery while failing the next class" track. Now at least the ones who are just too immature to do their homework as freshmen can stay on track to graduate without "credit recovery". (Every place I've worked, credit recovery has been some 3rd party online thing with a pile of computer-scored tests that are focused on the parts of math that are easy to grade rather than things about, say, being able to explain your work well or solve a problem with lots of steps and alternate paths to a solution. Also, unless the program they're in is usually well-managed, the kids generally just hammer on the tests repeatedly hoping to get right answers one of these days.)

Imagine how your CC grad rates would go down (or the rigor of your math classes would, your choice) if every student needed to pass math every term in order to get their college degree. After all "they're in college for two years anyway, might as well teach them math".
Credit Recovery here is a joke.

"I need you to give me an assignment he can do (in a day) so he can earn his credit."

If that's all it takes to earn a credit, why are we wasting time and money actually teaching over a hundred hours of classroom instruction and evaluation?
You're missing the point, which is to punish further the school districts in poor and especially poor minority areas. It ain't a bug.
Independent of whatever agendas may be ascribed to the initiative, at least it puts the burden somewhat closer to the source.
At the very least it would then the High Schools starting to scream about their math performance than the Colleges, and you've got to agree that the Schools should be in a better position to actually do something about it. If you want things to get better at the schools then it does strike me as a sensible idea to give the schools an incentive to get better.

The technicality objections can be overcome (e.g. if you don't have dedicated remedial courses but integrated remedial coursework - just calculate how much that would cost and put that on the invoice).
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