Acceleration works!

California’s community colleges must accelerate teaching for remedial students to give more students a shot at success, writes Gary K. Hart, a former state senator and board member of the Campaign for College Opportunity, in the Sacramento Bee.

More than 70 percent of entering community college students are unprepared for college-level work. Most drop out.

Why such a high failure rate? Too often remedial courses are a repeat of high school classes involving tedious drills and low standards that already haven’t worked for students. Poorly prepared students become bored and discouraged, especially since they earn no college credits during their multiple semesters of remedial work.

Faculty members created the California Acceleration Project to develop innovative courses using challenging, relevant materials. Students can complete college English and math requirements in one year.

Instead of filling in the blanks in grammar workbooks, students are writing essays about the ethics of controversial psychology experiments. Instead of word problems about two trains traveling toward each other, they’re analyzing real-life data from pregnant women to identify factors correlated with low birth weights.

CAP students’ odds of completing college-level English more than doubled and their odds of completing college math were more than four times higher than regular remedial students, according to a recent study.

Accelerated English courses are improving success rates at Chabot College, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia.

Carnegie’s Statway, an accelerated math program, is producing gains at  American River College in Sacramento, Hart adds.

. . . why isn’t accelerated remediation offered at all California’s community colleges? Why are most students still stuck in the traditional system and dropping out at high rates? There are some modest retooling costs that are necessary, but the major problem seems to be inertia and a failure of imagination.

. . . Two years ago the Legislature adopted and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law with great fanfare the California Community College Student Success Act, which includes important initiatives such as campus-by-campus student progress scorecards, a more consistent assessment system, and new funding structures for services such as student orientation and counseling. They are all important reforms, yet curricular redesign and a focus on effective teaching strategies were absent. I believe until the heart of the education process is addressed (what is taught and how it is taught), our community college reforms will fall short, and large numbers of students who deserve a chance to work hard and earn a degree will continue to be casualties of a dysfunctional system.

Accelerated remediation should be available to all students, not just the lucky few, concludes Hart.

Accelerated teaching

Teaching “accelerated” English and math is very different from teaching a traditional remedial class, write Katie Hern and Myra Snell, in Toward a Vision of Accelerated Curriculum and Pedagogy. In the LearningWorks brief, the two community college professors draw on their work with the California Acceleration Project (CAP), a project of the California Community College Support Network (3CSN).

In traditional models of remediation, students often work on sub-skills, such as completing grammar exercises or reviewing a long list of arithmetic and algebra procedures from their prior schooling.

“We don’t believe that the basics should be separated out and front-loaded before students can tackle more challenging – and frankly, more interesting – tasks,” writes Hern. “Instead, we believe under-prepared students need practice with college-level skills, content, and ways of thinking. They need to reason their way through open-ended questions on topics that matter. They need to think. And if, along the way, we see that they are weak in some of the basics, we need to build in targeted support.”

At 12 California community colleges offering accelerated remediation, completion of college-level English increased by 50 percent. Accelerated math students were 3.3 times more likely to complete a college-level math course, according to preliminary results from a study by the Research and Planning Group.

Ninety percent of low-level remedial math students never earn a certificate or degree. That’s “Old Testament bad, rivers of blood bad,” says Uri Treisman, a University of Texas math and public affairs professor.

“The evidence is clear that requiring students to complete multiple semesters of remedial courses is just not working,” says Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks. But community colleges “need to think about not only curricular structure, but about how faculty are teaching.”

Changing Equations on remedial math

Redesigning remedial math can improve community college completion rates, concludes Changing Equations. Pamela Burdman wrote the report for LearningWorks, an Oakland-based nonprofit. Some community colleges are stressing statistics and quantitative reasoning over intermediate algebra for non-STEM students.

Early results – including a dramatic jump from 6 to 51 percent in the proportion of students completing college-level math in their first year of college — are lending credence to the theory that the alternative pathways are better tailored to academic majors that don’t require intermediate algebra. About a quarter of California’s 112 community colleges, as well as numerous colleges in at least a dozen other states, have begun to develop these alternatives for non-STEM (science, technology, engineer, and math) students.

Intermediate algebra is a major barrier to graduation, the report finds. Most entering community college students place into remedial math. Eighty percent fail to complete the sequence and pass college-level math.  remedial math

Half of Blacks and Latinos start community college with very weak math skills. Only 6 percent of students who place into the lowest remedial math level will pass a college-level math course within three years.

“We need to think hard about how remedial math sequences can best serve students who don’t want to become scientists or engineers,” says Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks.

California is accelerating remediation in math and English, but transfer policies are getting the way, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.

A faculty-led group called the California Acceleration Project has helped 42 of the state’s community colleges offer redesigned, faster versions of remedial math and English tracks. But the group’s co-founders said they would be able to make much more progress if the University of California changed its transfer credit requirements.

Myra Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos College, created Path2Stats to move remedial students quickly to college-level statistics. Her students “were more than four times as likely to complete college-level math as their peers in traditional remedial sequences,” writes Fain.

Currently 21 community colleges offer similar math courses.

But UC requires transfers to take intermediate algebra. Accelerated math doesn’t include enough algebra, according to UC.

Accelerating developmental ed

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’ trip to . . . where?

“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?”

After remedial math, more problems

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.