Friday, January 22, 2010

In Which a Reader Hits a Nerve

A longtime correspondent writes:

Is there anyone who specializes in remedial education, especially math? Or is it kind of farmed out? I ask this, because I'm working on becoming an economics instructor, but I've actually gotten pretty good at remedial math out of gross necessity (my students are not remotely prepared for my courses). How does that work?

(gulp) (adjust tie) (wipe sweat from brow)

A terrible confession: although the majority of the math sections taught at most cc's fall into the developmental or intermediate categories, full-time faculty frequently aren't hired with an eye to that. Generally -- with noble exceptions -- you'll find higher concentrations of adjuncts at the lower end of the curriculum, even though that's where the students need the most (and best) instruction. Depending on where you are, it may be typical to require a master's degree in math to teach any level of math at all.

For the record, I consider this insane. The research on student attrition is pretty clear that developmental math is the highest-risk part of the curriculum; I recall Kay McClenney commenting at a presentation once that students who fail developmental English generally come back to try again, but students who fail developmental math usually just walk away. Yet it's still unusual to see candidates present themselves as developmental specialists, and I've never seen a graduate degree in teaching developmental math. (I hope that's just a function of my own limited experience, and that there are such programs out there. Readers who know of any are invited to share in the comments.)

In my own experience, it has been a real struggle to find instructors who both love and excel at teaching developmental math. I found (and hired) one at Proprietary U: he was a former high school math teacher who got tired of public-school politics and wanted to teach algebra in a less regimented setting. Although it was many years ago, I remember my class observation clearly. He was gentle and patient with the students, literally walking from desk to desk, helping each student individually work through the problem on the board. Even students who failed the class loved him, and asked for him by name when they came back for a second try (which, in his case, they usually did). If I could figure out how to find more like him, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

There's an ongoing debate in the cc world about whether developmental classes should be housed in their disciplinary departments, or in a department like 'preparatory studies.' The advantage of the former is that it becomes difficult to ghettoize the program. The advantage of the latter is that recruitment is less likely to focus on traits that don't usually lend themselves to enthusiastically embracing developmental courses. I've sided with the former so far, since I haven't seen the latter done well. Again, though, I'm open to counterexamples.

So for this, I turn for guidance to my wise and worldly readers. Are there graduate programs that specialize in teaching people to teach developmental math? Can candidates with this inclination be spotted in some sort of reliable way? And is there more merit to the 'preparatory studies' model than I've assumed so far?