Teaching grade 12½


Instructor Fabiola Aurelien (left) helps Atlanta Metropolitan College student Shaundraey Carmichael.

The first year of college has become grade 12½ writes Rick Diguette in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Once he taught college English at the local community college. He’s still teaching composition, but it’s no longer “college” English.

Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect.  Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects.  If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.

I often remind them that even the keenest of insights will never receive due credit if it isn’t expressed in accordance with the rules of grammar and usage.  Spelling words correctly, as well as distinguishing words that sound the same but are not, is also a big plus.  “Weather” and “whether” are not interchangeable, for example, but even after I point this out some students continue to make the mistake.  And while I’m on the subject, the same goes for “whether” and “rather.”

A state law called Complete College Georgia now links college funding to student performance, writes Diguette. Georgia Perimeter College faculty have developed testable “Core Concepts” students are expected to master in freshman English.

Early in the semester we must first assess their ability to identify a complete sentence ― that is, one with a subject and a verb.  After that, somewhere around week five, we find out if they can identify a topic sentence ― the thing that controls the content of a paragraph. Then it’s on to using supporting details by week eight and creating thesis statements by week eleven.

It’s a low bar, he admits.

Is this grade 12 1/2? These were elementary and middle-school skills when I was in school, admittedly in the Neanderthal era. I remember learning “weather” and “whether” in fourth grade. I guess we didn’t learn to create thesis statements supported by details until ninth grade.

Bridging the gap between high school and college

Early college programs are bridging the gap between high school and college, reports Community College Daily.

it’s important for community college leaders to work with high school faculty on their turf, said Mary Aycock, former director of Early College Health Science Academy at Butler Community College  (BCC) in Kansas. She spoke at an American Association of Community Colleges convention.

Students enter BCC’s Early College program in their sophomore year of high school. They attend classes once a month that introduce them to higher education and career possibilities in their chosen field of study. They are also introduced to current BCC students who speak with them about their experiences. High school juniors and seniors join a cohort that spends a half day taking 13 to 15 semester hours of classes at the college and a half day taking regular courses at their high schools. The host school district provides Early College students with textbooks for BCC courses free of charge.

“We’ve tried to keep the costs down as much as possible because high school students don’t qualify for regular college financial aid,” Aycock says.

Offering a glimpse of college life motivates students, said Annette Cederholm, associate dean of planning and research at Snead State Community College in Alabama. Twice a year, Snead hosts College Days: High school students are invited to tour the campus and meet with faculty, administrators and students. Snead staffers also participate in a youth leadership program sponsored by local businesses.

High hopes, long odds

Ninety-five percent of low-income students who take the ACT want to go to college, reports The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013: Students from Low-Income Families. That’s higher than the rate for all students who take the ACT. 

However, low-income students (defined as a family income under $36,000) are less likely to take a strong college-prep curriculum in high school. Only 20 percent meet at least three of the four college readiness benchmarks set by ACT.  Only 59 percent of low-income students who take the ACT go directly from high school to college. That compares to 71 percent of all ACT test-takers.

Colleges are using “predictive analytics” to advise high-risk students, writes Libby Nelson on Vox. The goal is to raise “dismal graduation rates.”

Is flunking a course the sign of a bad semester, or the harbinger of much worse to come? Is a student with a 2.3 GPA going to be fine — “C’s get degrees,” after all — or a future dropout in the making?

But what if the numbers show some students have little chance of success?

Studies show teachers expend more time and attention with students they know will succeed; will professors neglect students data shows are likely to fail? States are under pressure to improve their graduation rates; if they can identify the students least likely to graduate, will it be too tempting to shut them out rather than admit them and help them through?

. . .  The American ethos of college-going rests on “if you can dream it, you can become it.” But when we can pinpoint the students least likely to succeed, what will happen to them?

Many students rely on “magical thinking,” writes Nelson. “From kindergarten through high school graduation, students are steeped in a can-do spirit. Believe in yourself. Reach for the stars. Never give up.”

Students will say an F on a midterm “isn’t a real F,” says Linda McMillin, a provost at Susquehanna University. Professors can use data to persuade them to get real.

“Ninety-eight percent of people who got this grade in this class were not able to change it. Tell me how you’re the exception. Let’s get real here, and let’s think about how we move you into another major that really aligns with your strengths and with your passions and gets you through in four years.”

“This is not a tool to highlight to students that they’re in trouble or can’t make it, says John Nicklow, provost at Southern Illinois University. “It’s an awareness tool to make them aware that now’s the time to buckle down.”

Perhaps middle-school and high school counselors should be armed with predictive analytics. The time to get real and buckle down occurs much earlier.

An open door to debt?

Community colleges provide an open door — to failure and debt, argues Community Colleges and the Access Effect  by Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson.  Scherer, an English professor at St. Louis Community College, specializes in developmental education. Anson, a former remedial writing instructor, runs the University of Iowa’s Upward Bound Project.

Poorly prepared students have little chance of success, write Scherer and Anson. Raising admissions requirements would strengthen academic classes for prepared students and protect the unprepared from debt.

Open-door admissions can perpetuate inequity, the authors tell Inside Higher Ed‘s Paul Fain in an e-mail interview. One mentors a a brain-damaged young man who was shot in the head when he was 16. He enrolled in community college, failed all his courses and went into debt that made him ineligible for a job training program. He works part-time for $7.35 an hour.

As students’ skills and ability levels declined, community colleges designed lengthy remedial sequences, Scherer and Anson write. Some “credit-bearing coursework . . .  is equal to standard kindergarten fare.”

The national college completion agenda movement is threatening academic standards, they charge. Advocates also blame remedial courses for high failure rates, ignoring “the monumental impact of academic preparation, aptitude and student motivation on completion.”

The rise of performance-based funding puts more pressure on community colleges to lower standards in order to raise completion rates, they add. That will make community college graduates unemployable in a competitive workforce.

“Reasonable entrance standards, coupled with a more compassionate approach to advising and enrolling community college students” will help students succeed, they argue.

 Some current degree-seeking students would thrive more — completion-wise and financially — in apprenticeships and job-training programs than they would in traditional two- or four-year degree programs.

Some are in desperate need of short-term training programs to financially stabilize them so that one day they might return and succeed in a more traditional degree program. Instead of repeatedly enrolling in and failing developmental education coursework aimed at eventually qualifying students for college-level coursework, many persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, are truly in need of affordable postsecondary programs to assist them in developing a career plan and independent living skills, including learning to manage their money and their personal safety and health, for example.

A few community colleges now require students to test at the seventh-grade level or above.

Community colleges are about second chances, responds Matt Reed. We don’t know who will take advantage of the opportunity before they try. And the alternatives for students who are turned away are very bleak.

QuickStart helps adults ‘hit the ground running’

Starting college can be difficult for adult students, who often have rusty academic skills. Zane State College (ZSC) in Ohio has developed a pre-enrollment program that offers “cultural and social supports, computer literacy and academic skills-building,” reports Community College Daily.

QuickStart, which is free to students, is helping students avoid remedial courses. Of the 56 percent who complete the program, 60 percent are able to start in college-level reading and 40 percent in college-level composition.

Three other Ohio community colleges have adopted QuickStart.

QuickStart participants can earn three credits by mastering basic math and writing skills. They’re ready to “hit the ground running” when they officially enroll at ZSC, said Becky Ament, dean of developmental education.  “It lowers the stakes for adult learners, easing concerns about failure,” she said.

Originally designed in an online format, QuickStart was adapted when students said they preferred face-to-face interaction, said Ament. “When you’re trying to build someone’s confidence, that encouragement and praise and mentoring is so important.”

No silver bullet for remedial woes

Reforming remedial education will be “vastly more complex” than reformers and policymakers think, argues Hunter R. Boylan in Inside Higher Ed. Boylan, an Appalachian State professor of higher education, runs the National Center for Developmental Education.

Community colleges will need to “address non-academic issues that may prevent students from succeeding, improve the quality of instruction at all levels, revise financial aid policies, provide better advising to students at risk, integrate instruction and support services, teach college success skills, invest in professional development and do all of these things in a systematic manner integrated into the mainstream of the institution,” writes Boylan.

Many policy makers are ignoring developmental education professionals and requiring colleges to adopt unproven ideas in an unsystematic way, he charges.

Historically, remedial reforms have been only moderately effective, Boylan writes. Traditional remedial classes — usually taught by poorly paid adjuncts — are cheap. Alternatives were seen as too expensive and labor-intensive. 

Today’s reformers advocate “embedded support services, modular instruction, contextualized instruction, computer based instruction or accelerated remedial courses,” writes Boylan. Some want to eliminate remedial courses. But piecemeal innovations won’t work. The whole system has to change.

Most community colleges do not have the resources to do the sort of intrusive academic advising needed by underprepared students. Academic support services in the community colleges are not systematically connected to the courses they are supposed to support. There is little focused faculty development for those working with underprepared students. The system provides few rewards for working effectively with underprepared students. There is insufficient communication between those who teach remedial courses and those who teach college-level courses.

Reform plans should include evaluation to see if new models work any better than the old one, concludes Boylan.

2/3 take remedial course

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More than two thirds of community college students take at least one remedial education course, according to the American Association of Community Colleges’ DataPoints.

Seventy percent of students placed into remedial math will not even attempt a college-level gateway course within two years, writes Stan Jones of Complete College America.  Shifting remediation from a prerequisite to a “corequisite” will enable more students to take gateway courses, Jones argues.

We shall not all be dentists

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality shows “Midwestern University” co-eds partying a lot and studying a little, write Isaac N. Cohen and Amy L. Wax in And We Shall Not All Be Dentists.

Affluent, upper-middle-class students enjoy a choice of “academically meager” majors and “an easy-going whirl of socializing and fun.” Once they leave college, their well-connected parents can help them find jobs and pay their bills.

Working-class women often aren’t well-prepared for college. They’re “sucked into a party lifestyle they can ill afford, or find themselves alienated, isolated, or overwhelmed.” Most do not graduate in four years and a significant number don’t graduate at all.

For these women, the cost of useless courses, missed opportunities, bad grades, and a general lack of seriousness was particularly steep. Being in over their heads academically was made even worse by the weight of debt they accumulated. . . . The money they owed, too often after failing to complete a useful or lucrative course of study, made it hard for them to stay afloat financially in the real world and required many to move back home and work at multiple relatively unskilled jobs to make ends meet.

Many of the most successful working-class women profiled in the book transferred to less-competitive regional institutions and found steady — if not elite — employment. “Until and unless college is free (which is not going to happen soon), students of limited financial means and modest ability should be encouraged to pursue lower-cost and more practical options,” argue Cohen and Wax. “At the very least, community colleges and less-competitive, vocationally-oriented institutions should be recognized as the best path forward for all but the most driven and academically prepared.”

We need to start measuring how much college students are learning, writes Ben Wildavsky on CNN. He envisions a collegiate version of the National Assessment of Education Progress that would analyze whether a national sample of students are learning “vital academic skills.”

Completion gap is wide for first-gen students

Are College Degrees Inherited? asks Ronald Brownstein in National Journal. The children of college graduates are much more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree compared to children from “no-degree” families. Only 23 percent of first-generation students earn a degree compared to 55 percent from two-degree families, according to a new College Board/National JournalNext America Poll.

The decision to go straight from high school to postsecondary education is critical: Those who enrolled immediately in two- or four-year college or in vocational training were more than three times as likely to complete a credential than those who moved from high school into the workforce. Students from no-degree families are less likely to try college or job training.

Ninety percent of the straight-to-college group said they would do so again, while a majority of the work-first group said they wish they’d sought more education. 

For those who chose two-year schools, the big reasons were that “it cost less” (a resounding 75 percent) or that they considered it “easier to balance other obligations like family or work” (63 percent). For those who entered vocational training, cost (75 percent) and balancing other obligations (53 percent) were also big reasons—but so were the belief that it offered more job-relevant training (67 percent) and doubt that they could academically handle a two- or four-year school (47 percent).

Fewer than one in four who went straight to college said they were unprepared for college work.

Only about one in eight said family obligations interfered or that they spent too much time in remedial courses. About one-third in each case said they didn’t “receive enough guidance or direction from the college,” didn’t find course topics “interesting or relevant,” or found it difficult to be on their own for the first time.

. . . Hispanics (35 percent) were more likely than whites or blacks (around one-fourth in each case) to describe themselves as academically unprepared. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians were all at least twice as likely as whites to say they spent too much time in remedial courses—or that they faced complicating family obligations.

Students from no-degree families who went straight to college didn’t report more transition or readiness issues. But less than 60 percent completed a degree, compared with 70 percent of those from two- and one-degree families. Since fewer enroll, the completion gap is large.

Survey respondents split on whether young people “need a four-year college degree in order to be successful.”

“It’s become so expensive, it’s sort of priced itself out,” said Tammy Hasson, a retired home-health aide.

New goal: ‘Community college ready’

(Academic) college isn’t for everyone, wrote Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in Slate. Some students who are failing in college might succeed if they pursued job training, he argued.

It sparked a huge response. Many argued that students need college prep and career prep.

Others accused Petrilli of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for low-income and minority students.

“Community college ready” should be the minimum goal for all cognitively able students, responded Sandy Kress, an aide to George W. Bush. That means high school graduates should be prepared to take academic or vocational classes at a community college without the need for remediation.

Kress “prays” that “CTE advocates make these courses as rigorous and valued as they promise they will, and not just a dodge for them to avoid teaching and learning in the so-called old fashioned courses.” In the past, dead-end vocational education has been a “trap” for low-income and minority kids, writes Kress.

Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, edited by Penn Professor Laura Perna, looks at the gap between school and the workforce.

Check out “Nancy Hoffman’s excellent chapter on career and technical education,” advises Liz McInerny on Education Gadfly. Education and training for a specific calling  would keep students in school and on track for decent jobs, Hoffman writes.