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.

Prof: Group learning wastes time

Group learning “is a waste of classroom time and an obstacle to student learning,” argues Bruce Gans, who taught English at City Colleges of Chicago.

At a community college where he worked, non-tenured English instructors were evaluated on whether they fostered “group activities such as study groups and team projects.” Those who didn’t use group learning risked losing their jobs.

Gans observed teachers who were up for tenure or contract extensions.

A literature instructor wanted students to understand metaphor. She “circulated a set of lachrymose pop song lyrics and divvied the students into groups of three to identify and analyze the lyric’s figures of speech.”

During the collaboration period, most of the groups alternated between working desultorily and not at all. The instructor leaned against the edge of her desk silently observing her realm, then circulated briefly among the groups.  There were many to visit, which precluded going into great depth with any.

Much might have been accomplished had the instructor used that class time to present accurate analysis and modeling the thought process of decoding metaphor and to directly question her students. Instead, the students learned very little from their group work.

In a class on how to write a research paper, another instructor paired students, distributed readings on the research topic and told students to teach each other how to paraphrase the passages.

Students texted, made phone calls, chatted and joked. It “seems exceedingly unlikely” they learned about paraphrasing, Gans writes.

The central value of being in a classroom consists in the opportunity to be instructed directly by an expert credentialed in a core skill and complex body of knowledge, a teacher who has experience articulating ideas clearly and in holding students to rigorous standards of proficiency and civility.

. . . The strategy of group work, in contrast, is to unleash learning by yoking together two or more students who often possess neither aptitude nor concern for the assignment.  If a professor divides a class into small groups to correct grammar errors in their papers, no one should be surprised when the final papers substantially retain the original errors and have incorporated new ones.

Group projects are supposed to teach students to collaborate. Gans is dubious. “Groups are creatures of compromise, consensus, the intellectual mean, the mediocre.”

Having students evaluate each other’s writing doesn’t work if nobody’s a good writer, argues Troy Camplin, a lecturer in English at University of North Texas in Dallas.

A remedial writing student asked why we did peer review since, “I feel like I’m getting nothing but bad advice. I mean, they don’t know any more than I do.”

. . . I spent about half of my time going around telling students to ignore practically everything their fellow students told them to do. My students did not know grammar, or how to write a good sentence, or how to write a coherent paragraph, or how to make an argument – and I was asking them to critique their fellow students on precisely those points!

Good writers tend to be avid readers, Camplin argues. “The practice of reading good writing allows you to see what good sentences, good paragraphs, and good arguments look like.”  Students need to read extensively “before they can learn how to write well.”

What works for remedial students?

What works for remedial students? The Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) will assess new approaches to remedial assessment, placement and instruction.

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, in collaboration with MDRC and scholars at Stanford, University of California at Davis and Vanderbilt, has been awarded a five-year $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to create the center.

Three major studies are planned:

A national study to survey the characteristics of developmental students, the dominant remedial practices across two- and four-year colleges, and the nature and extent of reforms that have been recently implemented or are in process.

A randomized control trial in partnership with the State University of New York’s community college system to test the effectiveness of a “data analytics” assessment and placement system that relies on more information, including high school records, than the traditional method of placing students into remedial education.

A randomized control trial at several Texas community colleges comparing the New Mathways Project—a program developed by the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin to engage students in more active learning of math curricula that are tailored to specific academic pathways—with the traditional remedial and introductory college math sequence.

In addition, CAPR will investigate innovative approaches to remediation, including California’s Early Start.

CCRC’s Thomas Bailey and MDRC’s Lashawn Richburg-Hayes will lead the new center.

States don’t track students college readiness and progress through remediation with any consistency, concludes an Education Commission for the State report, Cure for Remedial Reporting ChaosA companion report recommends creating a national “framework” for measuring and reporting on remediation.

Colorado makes progress on remediation

Aims Professor Jeanine Lewis runs through a quick review of complex numbers during class Friday at Aims Community College.

Joshua Polson at The Greeley Tribune
Professor Jeanine Lewis reviews complex numbers during class at Aims Community College.

Colorado’s community colleges and state universities are improving remedial success rates, according to an annual progress report. Statewide 62 percent of remedial students completed their course, up from 59 percent the previous year.

At community colleges, retention rates were higher for first-time remedial students than for classmates who started in college-level courses. Fifty-eight percent of remedial students — but only 55 percent of non-remedial students — returned for a second year.

Fewer high school graduates require remediation: At community colleges, the rate fell slightly to 64 percent.

Offering developmental classes in high schools and expanding dual enrollment has helped, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Lt. Governor Joseph Garcia, the former president of Colorado State University at Pueblo and of Pikes Peak Community College, has taken the lead. It’s not easy, he said.

For example, the state’s community colleges have worked to boil down three semesters of remedial coursework into just one. It’s a labor-intensive job. But the end result will mean students can complete remedial work and “gateway” courses in math and English in just one year.

. . . “That saves the student time and money. And that saves the state money,” Garcia said

State standards are better aligned with college placement requirements, said Garcia. In addition, Colorado uses GEAR UP, a federally funded program that “targets low-income students in middle and high schools, offering intensive advising, dual enrollment and college preparation courses.”

Colorado also has changed the way state aid to students is distributed, notes Inside Higher Ed. “Students now receive more aid when they hit milestones on their way to a credential. Awards are also decreased if students do not graduate on time.”

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.

Scared of math

Math anxiety – fear that prevents learning — starts young, writes Dan Willingham,  a University of Virginia psychology professor, in RealClearEducation. Half of first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety. By college, 25 percent of university students — and 80 percent of community college students — suffer from math anxiety.

Anxiety distracts. It’s hard to focus on the math because your mind is preoccupied with concern that you’ll fail, that you’ll look stupid, and so on. Every math problem is a multi-tasking situation, because all the while the person is trying to work the problem, he’s also preoccupied with anxious thoughts.

“Children who have trouble with basic numeric skills — counting, appreciating which of two numbers is the larger—are at greater risk for developing math anxiety,” he writes.

But math anxiety also is learned from anxious adultsIf an elementary teacher is nervous about her math skills, her students are more likely to be anxious. They conclude “it’s hard not because you’re inexperienced and need more practice, but because lots of people (maybe including you) just can’t do it.” They conclude they’re just not “math people.”

Carnegie’s new approach to remedial math is trying to take the fear out of math for poorly prepared community college students, reports Sophie Quinton in The Atlantic.

Carnegie’s Community College Pathways Program has developed two one-year courses for students who’d otherwise be in remedial math. Statway blends basic algebra and college-level statistics. Quantway teaches developmental math in the first semester, then moves on to college-level quantitative reasoning.

Both tackle students’ math anxiety and their belief that they’re “just not math people,” says Bernadine Chuck Fong, who directs the developmental math initiative. “If we don’t change how they see themselves, they’re going to realize a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Instructors stress the value of “productive struggle.” Struggling with the material means you’re learning and growing.

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.

West Virginia: Avoid remedial ‘quicksand’

Remedial classes are the “quicksand of higher education,” James Skidmore, chancellor of West Virginia’s Community and Technical Colleges, told the state board of education.

Sixty-four percent of first-time students in the state are placed in remedial English, math or both. Only 13 percent go on to earn a degree, he said. “Students get in developmental and they never get out.”

Instead of taking remediation courses which do not count for college credit, West Virginia community colleges will begin offering “co-requisites.” These are college-level English and math classes with added support for students that need it.

Colleges will choose whether to offer a five-week “boot camp” to prepare students for the college level, tutoring sessions following each class and/or computer labs.

West Virginia joins Connecticut and Indiana as leaders in redesigning gateway college courses, writes Bruce Vandal of Complete College America. “In total, 22 states have made a commitment to dramatically increase the percent of students who complete gateway college courses in one academic year.”

High school grades vs. placement tests

High school grades are a better predictor of success in college courses than placement tests, argues Eloy Oakley, president/superintendent of Long Beach City College (LBCC) in California. He testified at a Senate education committee hearing on improving minority students’ college success.

A few years ago, when LBCC relied on placement tests, 90 percent of new students were placed in remedial courses, reports Community College Daily. In 2012, under the Promise Pathways initiative, the college shifted to assessing high school transcripts.

The college — where more than 83 percent of students come from minority ethnic groups and 62 percent are first-generation college students — also provided these students with clear, first-semester education plans and registration priority to ensure that they enrolled in foundational courses right away.

As a result, the completion rates of transfer-level English in the first year jumped from 12 percent to 41 percent, according to LBCC. For transfer-level math, it rose in the first year from 5 percent to 15 percent. Students in these programs had the same success rates as those who were directed in several semesters of developmental education.

LBCC works closely with the city’s school district to determine whether students can handle college-level courses.

How to compete with for-profit colleges

Community colleges should look at “what makes for-profits successful” in order to compete for students, writes Matt Reed, who worked in the for-profit sector before going to a community college.

To start with, for-profit colleges make it easy to apply.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out, to a student who’s really up against it economically, a twenty thousand dollar student loan due years in the future might as well be monopoly money, but a fifty dollar application fee is a real barrier.  Admissions counselors in for-profits will go out of their way to track down transcripts, for example, to give expedited decisions on transfer credits, which tend to be generous. (They understand the concept of a “loss leader.”)

They provide concierge-level service in areas like financial aid and admissions.

When he worked at DeVry, the campus had 15 to 20 admissions staffers for 4,000 students.  When he went to a community college, it had double the enrollment, with less than half the admissions staff.

For-profit colleges advertise specific programs, while community colleges tend to focus on the “overall brand.” The student has to figure out if a given community college trains HVAC techs or not.

For-profit colleges do little or no remediation before letting students start a program. They work to keep students in the program. “It’s much cheaper to retain a customer than to attract a new one.”

Community colleges also can learn from Southern New Hampshire University’s non-profit College for America, which will now offer bachelor’s degrees, Reed writes. College for America works with large employers to become the in-house higher education option for their workers.  “It has a narrow range of majors, a low upfront cost, a built-in support system, and regional accreditation.” Using a competency model keeps costs down.