Friday, April 10, 2009

The Death March

I mentioned a few days ago that Kay McClenney's point about shortening the remediation death march was worth a post in itself. Here goes...

At most cc's that I've seen, students who don't have prior course credit or certain scores on AP or SAT/ACT tests have to take placement tests in reading, writing, and math. Most new students place 'developmental,' meaning that the test shows that they aren't currently performing the particular skill at a level appropriate for college work. (English as a Second Language may or may not be considered remedial, depending on the college. It typically has its own test, the TOEFL.) Depending on the degree to which the student missed the mark for 101-level courses, the student may need anywhere from one to three levels of remediation.

Although intro courses are fairly standard across colleges, developmental courses aren't. Part of that has to do with transfer. Developmental courses don't transfer, since they don't carry graduation credit, so individual campuses usually have considerable autonomy in customizing their own developmental sequences. I've seen some that combine reading and writing into a single course, for example. I've seen others that have three levels of each. In some, the ESL sequence feeds into the lowest level of developmental; in others, ESL is presumed to lead to English 101.

Developmental coursework is usually a tough sell to both the public and the students. The public often isn't wild about it, out of a correct sense that it already paid for that material to be taught by the K-12 system. There's truth in that, but we can either give up on the unsuccessful products of K-12, or not.

The students themselves often resent being placed into developmental classes, especially if they just came out of high school with decent grades. (For reasons that passeth understanding, states that have standardized tests for high school graduation and standardized tests for college placement don't align the two. If I were king of education for a single day...) Developmental courses don't count for graduation, and can be pretty tedious. And according to the national data I've seen, developmental math is often the first and last experience of college for a disturbing number of people.

For a student who shows up expecting a degree in four semesters, to be told that your math or writing skills are so poor that you'll need at least three more semesters before even getting started has to be demoralizing. Many students feel insulted by it, and many more feel ashamed, which doesn't do wonders for their motivation.

In a perfect world, every student would arrive at college literate, numerate, and ready to go. But until that happens, there's a serious challenge to address.

One of the great contributions of data has been to show that no matter the logical or content-based coherence of a sequence, too much remediation is self-defeating. If the march is too long, too many marchers drop out. Some of the expedients various colleges are trying include:

1.Compression of levels. This can be done by combining two courses (reading and writing, or arithmetic and basic algebra) into one course. It can also be done by teaching the courses in shorter formats, so the students can get through quicker. The acceleration approach can work particularly well when the issue isn't so much 'inability' as 'rustiness.'
2.Supplemental Instruction. This involves placing a tutor in the classroom to help students as the class is going on. With peer tutors, it can be cost-effective, though quality can vary. With professional instructors, the quality is high, but the cost is usually prohibitive on a large scale.
3.Cram courses. These are non-course intensive workshops taught in the week or two before a student (re)takes a placement exam. As with the accelerated remediation, they can work pretty well for the adult student for whom rustiness is the real issue, but they're less successful with kids who never got it in the first place.
4.Contextualized remediation. This is the flavor of the month right now. Many grant-funded workforce development programs that target low-income adults use this as a way to get students through certification programs in a relative hurry. The idea is that if you're really there to get a credential in, say, a culinary program, then any developmental courses you have to take should draw on culinary content for their examples. I haven't seen any good data on this one way or the other, although it certainly has an intuitive appeal. The catch is that it really only works in a tight-knit cohort model. If I've got 20 students all enrolling in the same program at the same time, and they all have the same developmental needs, I can do this. But it really can't be generalized to the college as a whole.

Part of my hope in doing this post is that some of my wise and worldly readers will chime in with different models they've seen succeed. My campus, like most others, is trying to improve the success rate of students in developmental courses, but finding it hard to get significant, sustainable results. Any ground-tested hints anyone could share would be greatly appreciated. So, my wise and worldly readers, have you seen anything work on the ground that might be worth a shot elsewhere?