Who needs algebra?

Who Needs Algebra? asks NPR.

Sixty percent of the nation’s 12.8 million community college students are required to take at least one course in subject X. Eighty percent of that 60 percent never move on past that requirement.

Let Y = the total percentage of community college students prevented from graduating simply by failing that one subject, X. What is Y?

The answer: Y = 48.

. . . What is X?

The answer: Subject X equals the course sequence known as developmental or remedial math, and especially its final course, algebra.

Algebra is “the single most-failed course” at every community college, says Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y. Algebra is less a gateway than an impassable barrier.

Ashjame Pendarvis, 20, hopes to major in infant and early childhood education at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. But she’s placed into the lowest level of math. She’ll need to pass “two semesters of remedial math out of the way before she can start on courses relevant to her major, and two more of college-level math before she can graduate,” reports NPR.

Ashjames Pendervis works on her math homework.

Ashjame Pendarvis works on her remedial math homework at UDC Community College.

“I feel like, if math isn’t important in your career, then there is no need for it in college,” Pendarvis says. “What’s the purpose of wasting your time and your money?”

Mellow agrees. She’s involved with Carnegie’s Pathways, which offer alternatives to the traditional algebra-heavy math sequence. Some students study statistics (Statway), while others take “Quantitative Reasoning” (Quantway).

Success rates are high for Quantway and Statway students at LaGuardia and elsewhere since the program started three years ago.

Half complete remedial and college-level math in one year. “In the traditional sequence, just 15 percent do the same — and that’s in two years,” notes NPR. “We’ve tripled our success rate in half the time,” says Mellow.

Pathways students score as well or better in college-level math and statistics exams as other students, says Karen Klipple, who directs the Pathways Project.

‘Spidey sense’ wins award

Studying ground spiders’ hairy bellies earned a Sigma Xi research award for Amanda Tsang, a LaGuardia Community College student.

Tsang and her faculty mentor, Dr. Boris Zakharov, conduct their research at the American Museum of Natural History, home of a large spider collection, reports Community College Daily. “More research into spider setae may help us better understand their evolution,” Tsang said.

Tsang earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and a master’s in public health degree in epidemiology from Columbia University. She’s taking prerequisite science courses at LaGuardia to qualify for physician’s assistant training.

LaGuardia’s “courses are rigorous and I love my professors,” she said. “And the research has been an added plus.”

Adding job prep creates a ‘GED machine’

LaGuardia Community College is a GED machine,” writes Fawn Johnson in The Atlantic. Almost 40 percent of urban students don’t finish high school. LaGuardia, in New York City’s bureau of Queens, offers prep classes for the state’s high school equivalency exam that are linked to job training.  One course is designed for would-be health workers, another for business students and another for those aiming for technical jobs.

LaGuardia’s free classes, funded by state, city, and foundation grants, have a months-long waiting list. Students willing to pay for courses (at about $3.50 per hour of instruction) can usually get a spot in the next scheduled class, although those fill up, too. Most students are black or Latino.

But a General Educational Development certificate alone won’t suffice for people who want to make a decent wage. So, three years ago, LaGuardia began tailoring its GED-prep classes toward certain professions. Reading material for aspiring health pros includes a book about three friends trying to become doctors. Math homework for prospective engineers involves interpreting charts and graphs. These professional-development additions to GED classes were intended to create a smooth transition to college classes or more job training. The community college wound up inheriting a lot of its own successful GED students. Seventeen percent of its college students are from the GED program.

The pass rate is 53 percent for students in the “contextualized curriculum” courses compared to 22 percent in the old test-prep only courses. Furthermore, 24 percent of students who earn their GED certificate through a LaGuardia course now sign up for courses, more than three times the old rate.

‘You have ambition, smarts, toughness’

Struggle is educational said Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd C. Blankfein in a commencement speech at LaGuardia Community College, reports the New York Times.“You have the ambition, you have the smarts and you have the toughness,” he said.

Mr. Blankfein drew on his own journey – from a housing project in Brooklyn to the top of one of Wall Street’s mightiest firms – to offer life advice.

“My struggle to get to and through college turned out to be an advantage for me,” Mr. Blankfein said in his speech in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. “The disadvantages you have had become part of your personal history and track record, all advantages in your later life. So confidence is justified.”

Goldman Sachs, which is trying to improve its public image, works with LaGuardia to train entrepreneurs as part of the firm’s 10,000 Small Businesses program.

Blankfein grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, where his father sorted mail for the post office and his mother worked as a receptionist.  It was a “world of unlimited opportunity,” he told the graduates.

James Hazelrig, who earned a degree at Montgomery College in Maryland, had failed in his first try at college, he said in a commencement speech. He worked, married, became a father, bought a home and decided he would not fail again.

It’s interesting to me that at 20 I had no responsibility and couldn’t manage even a C average, yet at 30, working two part-time jobs while full time parenting, I have found the focus and discipline that allowed me to make the Dean’s List five times and maintain a 4.0 GPA for 70 new credits toward an engineering degree. I will receive my Associate of Science today and, in September, I will be attending a top ten nationally ranked aerospace engineering program at the University of Maryland.

“For those of us who have ever struggled during our academic career, today is just a little bit sweeter knowing how far we’ve come,” he said.

Unprepared in the Big Apple

New York City high schools are flooding community colleges with unprepared students, reports the Village Voice. Eighty percent need remedial reading, writing or math — especially math — when they enroll, up from 71 percent a few years ago.

City University of New York’s community colleges have doubled spending on remediation in just a decade, to $33 million a year, reports the Voice. “Faculty members have been transformed into de facto high school teachers.”

The Voice blames the push to raise graduation rates, but it’s also a sign of increased academic ambitions:  More high school graduates are enrolling in community college.

Seeing very low success rates for remedial students, CUNY began experimenting in 2007 with other ways to prepare students for college-level courses.

Jahleah Santiago and Ashley Baret, who hated math in high school,  are in the START program, an intensive 12-week immersion, at LaGuardia Community College. They spend 15 hours a week in math class.

Nathan Stevens . . . stands at the whiteboard, going over eight homework problems, encouraging all 14 students (average class size is 20) to verbalize their thought processes. . . . “How do you know that you’re finished with the factors now?” . . . as the class simplifies polynomials and multiplied exponents: “Put it into words, Manny. Tell me how you got that answer.”

. . . “In this program we seek to show what’s really happening in the math,” Stevens says. “Rather than teaching my students to memorize the formulas, tricks, rules, I try to reinforce the underlying ideas of what they’re looking at, with the hope that they could solve any problem they see.”

“In my high school, math was kind of under a veil,” says Santiago. “You didn’t know what was going on—you just do that and that and get the answer. Nathan will break it down and do different examples until we get it.”

Sixty to 70 percent of START students reach proficiency in one semester, compared with 20 percent who take regular remedial courses.

CUNY also offers ASAP, a full-year intensive program. It costs more per student plus less per graduate.

. . . of the original cohort who entered ASAP in 2007, 55 percent earned their associates’ degree in three years, compared with 24.7 percent of similar students in the broader CUNY campus and just 16 percent of urban community college students nationally. According to an independent study by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Columbia, the graduation rates were so much higher that ASAP cost about 10 percent less per graduate.

If New York City’s public schools invested in  “small class sizes, mastery-based course design, one additional counselor or adviser for every 25 students,” it’s likely more students would learn math in middle and high school, instead of struggling to learn it in college, the Voice suggests. That would save money in the long run, but it would be saved by CUNY and by students, not by the K-12 system.

CC trains sign-language interpreters

When deaf students are mainstreamed into regular classes, they need a skilled sign-language interpreter, says Rob Hills, director of the ASL-English Interpretation Program (AEIP) at LaGuardia Community College in New York. With a grant from the U.S. Education Department, the college will train more interpreters to work in school settings.

AEIP applicants need an associate degree, such as LCC’s degree in deaf studies and ASL.  While in the program, they can earn a bachelor’s degree in Educational Studies: ASL-English Interpretation through a partnership with Empire State College.

Few immigrants thrive without English

Few immigrants thrive without learning English, wrote Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, in response to a New York Times story, Moving to U.S. and Prospering, Without English.

Yes, a tiny group of immigrants will thrive without learning English, but mastering English is a prerequisite to becoming part of the middle class in today’s America. It’s why immigrants flock to free or low-cost English language programs that community colleges across the nation offer.

Sadly, the patchwork of private and government money falls far short of meeting demand. Right now at LaGuardia Community College, people hungry to learn English are placed on a waiting list that extends up to two years.

If we want immigrants to prosper, and to advance our democracy, it is a huge mistake to tell those who are desperate to learn English today to take a number and we’ll get back to them in a couple of years.

Sadly, many people think immigrants don’t want to learn English. That’s just not true. Wait lists for English classes are common in California as well. We need more online opportunities to improve English skills.

New GED will test college readiness

The GED is being redesigned “as a step in a journey toward postsecondary training, rather than as an end in itself,” reports Education Week.  “The new exam, due out in 2014, will have two passing points: the traditional one connoting high school equivalency, and an additional, higher one signaling college and career readiness.”

Currently, the GED requires only one short essay. The new version probably will require two longer essays and four short ones in all subject areas. Expert panels will set cutoff scores at the high school equivalency and college readiness level.

“The message is that you’re not here just to get a high school equivalency and walk out. You’re here to get prepared for careers and educational opportunities that are going to demand that you have even more skill,” said Nicole M. Chestang, the executive vice president of the GED Testing Service.

Some 750,000 teens and adults — typically with a 10th-grade education — now take the GED exam, which covers reading, writing, math, science and social studies. However, GED holders don’t do as well as high school graduates in the workforce or in higher education.

Some say the test is too easy.

Officials in New York City, for instance, said last December that the passing score reflects only middle-school-level content and skills. The city is helping pilot a new, accelerated GED curriculum and accompanying supports in a subdistrict of alternative schools.

Others say people who pass the GED equal high school graduates in cognitive skills, but resemble dropouts in “soft skills,” such as persistence, motivation and ability to work with others.

While GED recipients are more likely to enroll in college than high school dropouts, few earn a certificate or degree.

A 2009 study (pdf) by the ACE followed 1,000 people who took the GED and found that only 307 had enrolled in postsecondary education five years later. Three-quarters dropped out after one semester, and only 17 completed a degree or certificate.

Since 2007, La Guardia Community College in New York  has increased the college transition rate dramatically through its GED Bridge to College and Careers (pdf) program. While studying for the GED, students also learn college-level material to prepare for careers in business or health care. In addition, instructors also teach “college knowledge,” such as  how to apply for financial aid.

Before the bridge program was created, only 35 percent of GED students enrolled in college classes.  Last year, 80 percent of bridge graduates went on to certificate or degree programs.

“Making that connection with community college is an essential part of flipping the GED into an aspirational degree,” said Gail Mellow, the community college’s president.

A high school dropout and Navy veteran, my brother-in-law got into Cal Poly based on his very high GED score. He earned a degree in computer science. But that was a long time ago.

Remedial students flood CUNY

Three-quarters of first-year students at New York City’s community colleges need remediation in reading, writing or math, reports the New York Times. In the past five years, the number of “triple low remedial” students who are far behind in all three subjects has doubled. Spending on remediation has doubled in 10 years.

“It takes a lot of our time and energy and money to figure out what to do with all of these students who need remediation,” said Alexandra W. Logue, the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost. That means less attention is paid to providing a college education to prepared students.

At LaGuardia Community College in Queens, where 40 percent of the math classes are remedial, faculty members like Jerry G. Ianni have been increasingly dividing their time between teaching those classes and teaching courses for academic credit, prompting worries that professors are becoming de facto high school teachers.

“Most students have serious challenges remembering the basic rules of arithmetic,” Dr. Ianni said of his remedial math class. “The course is really a refresher, but they aren’t ready for a refresher. They need to learn how to learn.”

About 65 percent of community college students nationwide need remediation, according to Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University. Math is the biggest roadblock.

Many students are surprised to be placed in remedial classes.

As a freshman at LaGuardia, Angel Payero, 18, took the necessary assessment tests in August and discovered that he was deficient in reading, writing and math.

“Throughout high school, I was a good math student, and to find out that it was my lowest grade of all three was really surprising,” said Mr. Payero, who graduated from the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry.

LaGuardia is seeing success with an “immersion” program. Students take only remedial classes for one semester, spending up to 25 hours a week in the classroom, for a flat fee of $75.  More than 70 percent of immersion students qualify for college-level classes, compared to 50 percent of traditional remedial students.

Only 23 percent of New York City high school graduates are prepared for college classes in reading and math, according to the state Regents tests.

New York City’s public schools are trying to reduce the need for remediation by aligning curricula with CUNY.  The city will track how each high school’s graduates do in college; starting in 2012, college readiness measures will be included in high school progress reports.


Recession challenges community colleges

The recession has created new challenges for community colleges, writes David Wessel in the Wall Street Journal. Demand for college classes “threatens to outstrip their capacity and funding. And “training students for jobs that don’t exist is somewhere between disheartening and counterproductive.”

The White House Community Colleges Summit on Oct. 5 is a “consolation prize,” he writes.

A year ago, the president proposed pumping $12 billion over 10 years into community colleges as part of his campaign to boost the share of Americans with college degrees above those of all other countries by 2020. Congress instead approved $2 billion over four years for grants to colleges, to be used only for workers who lose jobs to imports, a restriction the White House hopes to undo.

At least, the summit will give the community colleges some respect at a difficult time. Unemployed workers are turning to community colleges for job training at the same time more students are enrolling as a low-cost first step to a four-year degree. It’s difficult to meet the needs of diverse students, says James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan.

Without a strong commitment to serving low-income students and money to do so, he warns, “community colleges will find the mission of preserving the middle class will trump the demands of low-income students.” Pressure to boost graduation rates—to invest students who will succeed—gives community colleges another reason to avoid focusing on low-income students.

Community colleges are turning into economic-development agents in their communities in order to help create jobs for their students, Wessel writes.

LaGuardia Community College trained 23 small-business owners in a program funded by Goldman Sachs. More than half have hired new staff and improved profitability after going through the program, says college president Gail Mellow in an interview with Wessel. “Without the impact of the recession, I don’t think folks would be looking at community colleges in quite this way.”

LaGuardia is trying to educate 11 percent more students with a 4.5 percent decrease in funding, says Mellow.

We’ve cut tutoring, career counseling, computer access in open labs, library hours. We refused to increase class size, because we think that impacts quality of instruction.

. . . We are looking in every way we can to cut costs through use of technology — sometimes even hoping to advance services at the same time. We are piloting an online, interactive career development process that is promising, and looking to build a similar online process for advising. After the initial investment, services should be much better in both areas.

LaGuardia was forced to close registration for new students this year and last, turning away late registrants. That tends to hurt the neediest students, Mellow says.

There is also increasing pressure from my “higher ups” to invest only in those students who will succeed. It’s a hard call to make, but wealthier students are a better bet if a campus wants to significantly increase its retention or graduation rate.

“We have to continue to sharpen our game and serve more students more effectively,” Mellow concludes.