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Community colleges change approaches to remedial courses

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Every year, a new crop of adults apply to community colleges. But first they have to take tests of their English and math skills. Nationwide, 60 percent fail at least one of the tests.

Traditionally, those applicants have been required to take — and pay for — remedial or development courses to shore up their basic skills before they are allowed into college-level classes. Many never make it that far.

Such remedial education is a major contributor to lowering how many students stay enrolled. Less than 10 percent of remedial students graduate from a community college within three years, according to a 2012 report by Complete College America. It called traditional remedial education a “bridge to nowhere.”

“Frankly, the way we’ve been doing it isn’t very successful,” said J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees. “Worst case, it actually discourages and creates barriers to students and can be, honestly, downright demoralizing.”

Many students arrive with higher expectations of themselves.

“Often students may not even be really aware of their own academic deficits,” Brown explained. “A lot of these students have high school diplomas, so as far as they’re concerned, they’re ready. But then they take these math and English assessments and they’re found wanting.”

With the national focus on increasing how many students complete academic programs in higher education, community colleges have been rethinking remedial education and trying new approaches.

“There are all kinds of new ways developmental education is being presented to students across the country,” said Evelyn Waiwaiole, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas Austin.

One approach scraps tradition by allowing students to enroll in a developmental math or English course at the same time they take a first-year college course in that subject. While they are catching up, those students build college credit.

Another innovation requires failing students to acquire only the particular math or English skills they lack in self-paced, modular or competency-based courses. Students can spend less than a full semester getting up to speed and skip lessons on skills they have already mastered.

A third approach abandons the insistence on algebra as the gateway math course for all community colleges. Some are allowed to take statistics, a course more closely related to an intended field of study in, for example, the social sciences.

“We’re getting some more insight into the (different) models,” Brown said. “Obviously, there’ll be a need to do a lot of follow-up study and validation, but at least anecdotally or preliminarily, there seems to be a lot of cause of hope.”

One of the best-known models is the Accelerated Learning Program, which the Community College of Baltimore County launched in 2007 after detecting only a third of remedial English students completed English 101 in four years.

The accelerated program has grown to include all entering students who place into the top developmental course, according to Donna McKusick, the program’s director. They take that course and English 101 concurrently, with the same instructor. The developmental class has 10 students, the regular one 20, including 10 who placed into English 101.

McKusick said 81 percent of the program’s developmental students earned college credits within a year, while 68 percent of other developmental students did. Moreover, 44 percent of the accelerated students enrolled in English 102 in 2012, compared with 13 percent of other developmental students.

The Education Commission of the States observed that the model requires, as do other new approaches to remedial courses, a community college to invest in training instructors to teach them.

At least 90 institutions of higher education have adapted the Baltimore County model, according to the commission.

In math, colleges around the country have tried a modular approach, some with computer technology from Pearson, the educational company.

Middlesex Community College, which has campuses in Lowell and Bedford, has used Pearson’s MyMathLab program to increase student retention in the first year of enrollment. Sixty percent of students in the special developmental course in the fall were still enrolled in the spring, compared with 51 percent who took the traditional catch-up course.

Another approach to math, which allows some developmental students to skip algebra and instead take basic statistics, has generated debate among community college leaders, Brown acknowledged.

Throughout higher education, algebra has traditionally been a prerequisite. Critics have resisted abandoning that gateway.

Two trademarked programs developed by the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching on statistics and mathematical reasoning, Brown said, have been “catching fire” at community colleges.

“For a lot of students, who don’t end up majoring in math or hard sciences, what they really need are these other kind of mathematical skills,” Brown said.

Another debate about who teaches remedial courses — full-time or part-time faculty, also called adjuncts — is simmering and has big budget implications.

Asked which type of instructors tend to teach the courses, Waiwaiole replied: “There’s a tremendous amount of adjuncts, but there are full-time faculty as well.”

Waiwaiole said her center’s report on part-time faculty disputed that full-time faculty, who spend more time on campus, are more engaged with students.

“We didn’t find that to be true,” Waiwaiole said. “They’re not there for the dollars. They’re very engaged in their work.”

For his part, Brown firmly argues community college trustees should insist full-time faculty teach remedial courses — even if they do not want to and costs go up.

“Students who need help in developmental math or English, we need to give them our best and brightest teaching professionals,” Brown said. “I think it makes a huge difference.”

The Community College of Baltimore County, whose Advanced Learning Program is a national model, has not resolved the debate. A mix of full-time and part-time faculty teach those remedial English courses, McKusick said.