Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Going “Full Florida”

What if students had the option of skipping remediation entirely?

The state of Florida has been conducting a forced experiment to answer that.  The legislature passed a law declaring that most incoming community college students could decide to bypass remedial classes even if their placement test scores indicated that they needed them.  The idea was that remedial coursework often does as much harm as good, in terms of getting students to graduation, and that it consumes significant amounts of their financial aid.  (That took on a new urgency in 2012, when the Feds tightened the lifetime limit for receiving Pell grants.)  Rather than trying to reform developmental ed, it decided to cut the Gordian knot and simply stop requiring it.  Students are given the option of taking it or not.

According to a report in the Sun-Sentinel, enrollments in developmental courses dropped by about half.  Pass rates in first-level college classes either dropped slightly or held steady, but the rates are based on larger populations; even with a slight drop in the rate, the percentage of students who eventually pass a college-level class is higher.  

That finding fits both with intuition and with anecdotal reports I got from some of my colleagues from Florida at Aspen.  They also mentioned that pass rates in developmental classes increased significantly, theorizing that it was because the students who chose it actually wanted it.  

A few years ago, when I was at Holyoke, we did a very limited version of the Florida experiment.  Students with high school GPA’s in a given range -- I’m thinking 2.3 to 2.7ish, but I don’t remember exactly -- were given the option of taking developmental math or not.  About half chose each way.  The ones who chose not to did just as well in 100-level math as students who placed in directly; the ones who chose remediation did just as well, or slightly better, in remedial classes as those who were mandated.  The results weren’t overwhelming, but they were positive, and they suggested that some epistemological humility about predicting student performance from the outside is probably in order.  And that’s with using GPA, as opposed to Accuplacer; I have no confidence that Accuplacer is terribly accurate when used as most colleges use it.

Having spent nearly a decade as a chief academic officer at two different community colleges, I’m increasingly sympathetic to going Full Florida.  There’s something fundamentally broken about developmental education as it’s currently done, and placement has a lot to do with it.  Forcing students who have had bad experiences in a given subject to start by re-taking material they’ve had before, on their own dime, with no credit towards graduation, is a motivation-killer.  And it’s based on a theory of knowledge that I don’t think holds water.

It assumes that students can only learn material in one order.  It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress.

I’m just not sure that’s true.

Take languages.  It’s possible to teach a language in a linear way, but that’s not how people best learn them.  They learn languages by being thrown in the deep end and flailing around a while.  Anyone who raised children can tell you that their learning is much more idiosyncratic than linear.  Yes, that can lead to gaps, but gaps can be filled.  And the fastest way to shut down a kid’s interest is to reduce it to workbooks.

Adults aren’t just taller children, but the same principle applies.  When I get a new gadget -- and I do love my gadgets -- I never, never, never read the instructions front to back.  I look for the specific points I need.  If later I realize that I missed something, I find it.  Students are often the same way.  We’ve been essentially forcing them to read the manual, then wondering why they lose interest.

I was actually encouraged at Holyoke when about half of the students given the option of skipping chose not to, and encouraged again to see that the same held true in Florida.  Some students know that they’re lost, and actually want the help.  As any teacher can tell you, when a student actually wants to learn, you’re halfway home.  Kay McClenney’s well-known admonition that “students don’t do optional” isn’t always entirely true.  They do when they know they need it.  

I don’t have a habit of thanking Floridian politicians for their wisdom, but credit where credit is due.  The rest of us should take a long, hard look at going Full Florida.