Three models of accelerated developmental education are catching on at community colleges, according to WestEd’s Game Changers series. Acceleration cuts the time in remedial courses, letting students enroll more quickly—or immediately—in for-credit courses that lead to a certificate or degree. Acceleration strategies include:
Helping students avoid developmental education whenever possible
Revising the developmental education curriculum to shorten the sequence, align it with transfer-level and career technical coursework, and make it more rigorous
Providing additional student supports that are integrated with coursework
Providing remediation simultaneously with courses that lead to credentials
Customizing and contextualizing remediation along multiple academic and career pathways so that students learn math or language arts concepts based on their specific needs and on their desired instructional programs
Monitoring progress at regular intervals based on demonstrated competency rather than on seat time
“The most essential principle is for faculty to rethink the content of the developmental education sequence,” says Katie Hern, director of the California Acceleration Project, and a Chabot College English instructor.
On the English side, I question the way we’ve typically broken out our curriculum—such as teaching grammar first, then the sentence, then you step it up to work on paragraphs for a semester, then personal essays. There are assumptions that academic literacy can be broken into a linear subscale—that leads to a terrible curriculum. At Chabot College, we have a principle that what you need to do is practice the exact things college-level English will ask you to do. It’s the opposite of fragmentation. You are reading books, doing higher-order thinking, and writing essays. And you do that in developmental education classes. Students feel like they’re in a college English class—they just aren’t as good at it yet and they need additional supports.
Community college faculty are well aware of the high failure rates in traditional developmental education and open to new high ideas, say acceleration advocates.
“Accelerated Learning” is all the rage on community college campuses, writes David Clemens, an English professor at Monterey Peninsula College, on the National Association of Scholars blog. But is it a bullet train to success? Or an oxymoron?
Though advocates have trouble defining acceleration, it’s usually applied to remediation, Clemens writes. But why should colleges do remediation at all?
Why do colleges and universities maintain extensive and expensive machinery and personnel for remediation of students who have already and persistently failed at high school, junior high school, even elementary school skills?
Katie Hern of the California Acceleration Project argues that “placement is fate,” he writes. Few students who start three levels below college ever pass a college-level course, so she proposes eliminating low-level remedial courses and placement tests.
Twenty years ago, he watched “the construction of the remediation labyrinth.”
One dubious colleague called it “The Great Mitosis” as remediation crusaders split bonehead English into bonehead reading and bonehead writing, and the downhill race was on. Each course became two courses, then new courses, new and lower levels, more teaching load credit, an English Skills Center, a Math Skills Center, a Reading Center, a Lindamood-Bell Center, a Tutorial Center. . . . Today, students’ financial aid now can run out before they ever reach college level (such as it is).
“Accelerating” remediation collapses all those levels, “integrating reading and writing, just like the old days but with speedy, pervasive computing,” Clemens writes. ”So acceleration just might be the ticket…but to where?”
Remedial math is only the first barrier to success for California’s community college students. Only 55 percent of community college students passed college-level math courses in fall of 2010, concludes an EdSource analysis, Passing When It Counts. Forty-one percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanics passed.
At a minimum, degree-seeking students must pass Intermediate Algebra or demonstrate proficiency on a math placement test. Until two years ago, only elementary algebra was necessary.
At a recent conference of the California Mathematics Council Community Colleges, math instructors “discussed a range of strategies, including helping students understand math concepts rather than focusing on formulas, and tying math instruction more closely to the courses of study students are pursuing,” Edsource reports.
Said Santa Rosa Junior College student Jesse Cohen, who has tutored his fellow math students, “Students need more of the why, not only the how and the what.”
Barry Russell, the community colleges’ vice chancellor of academic affairs, said instruction should stress relevance.
. . . many (welding) students don’t understand that welding has a “huge of amount of trigonometry in it.” Math classes, he said, should feature examples specifically related to welding, as well as to other fields that involve math skills, from business to medicine. “If we’re going to require math, then making the connections is more of what we should be about,” Russell said.
Success rates in community college math courses vary significantly across the state: While 69 percent of students passed college math at Merritt College in Oakland, only 34 percent succeeded at West Hills College Coalinga.
Community college instructors are trying to move students quickly through developmental math, reading and writing courses through initiatives such as the California Acceleration Project. Redesigning remedial instruction may carry over to college-level classes.