California: CCs plan huge growth

California community colleges will try to increase degree completion and transfers by nearly a quarter of a million students over the next decade, reports the Sacramento Bee.

“This is probably the most ambitious goal-setting effort ever undertaken by our system,” California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris said.

Currently, 48.1 percent of students complete a degree or transfer; the completion rate for vocational certificates is 53.9 percent. The new targets call for raising the completion rate for degree programs and transfers to 62.8 percent and for career technical education certificates to 70.3 percent.

California’s entrepreneurial economy requires a skilled workforce, writes Chancellor Brice Harris in the Los Angeles Daily News.

The new goals aim to increase the number of students who successfully complete remedial instruction, which unfortunately 75 percent of our students need when they arrive at our campuses. And we’ve set targets to increase the number of students who prepare educational plans at the beginning of their academic careers as well as the number of students who earn degrees under the Associate Degree for Transfer program, which has improved transfer with California State University.

The system’s “Student Success Initiative” calls for “giving priority registration status to students who participate in orientation, assessment and education planning; redesigning our student support services to help them stay on track academically; making it easier for students to transfer to CSUs; and collaborating with K-12 institutions to ensure that students come here ready to take college-level math and English courses,” writes Harris.

Community colleges should be free


Following Tennessee’s lead, several states are considering free tuition for community and technical college students.

Community Colleges Should Be Free, editorializes Scientific American. Community colleges train technicians for jobs in leading-edge industries and serve as gateways to higher education for first-generation, minority and working-class students.

The Tennessee Promise is showing the way. Starting next year, high school graduate will pay no tuition at two-year community colleges and technical schools.

However, many community college entrants have weak basic skills. Only 32 percent of Tennessee students complete a credential. Gov. Bill Haslam’s program includes “mentors” to help students succeed.

 To ensure that the newly enrolled reach graduation day, administrators of community colleges must emphasize accelerated remedial programs to get students through the basics and into career-related classes quickly enough to avoid the frustration and despondency that lead to elevated dropout rates.

The two-year colleges should also give serious consideration to new teaching methods that could maximize the time teachers have to interact with their students. Bill Gates, whose foundation has contributed tens of millions to remedy the failings of two-year schools, recommended in a speech last year that community colleges experiment with “flipped classrooms.” Students watch lectures from MOOCs (massive open online courses) at home. In class, instead of getting lectures, they complete homework-like exercises, with personalized instruction from professors and teaching assistants.

Oregon plans a Promise bill.  Mississippi legislators rejected the idea, but may come back to it next year. Now a Texas politician has proposed making community and technical college free to high school graduates in her state.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, wants the state to invest $2 billion in a Texas Promise Fund modeled after the Tennessee plan. “It is time to get Texans prepared for the jobs of the future,” said Van de Putte. Students would have to exhaust their federal grant aid and pay for their non-academic fees, books and living expenses.

In Michigan, the Kalamazoo Promise — funded by local philanthropists – guarantees college or university tuition to graduates of district-run public schools. Grades and AP enrollments are up and suspensions are way down, reports Politico. But, nine years after the Promise was announced, college dropout rates remain high for Kalamazoo students.

Brian Lindhal, a 2012 graduate of Loy Norrix High School, had a rocky start at Kalamazoo Valley Community College last fall. After earning a B in English and a D in history his first semester, he didn’t sign up for the winter term. “It didn’t click,” says Lindhal, 20, who works full-time at a company that restores garments after fires and floods. He plans to go back next semester. “I know a lot of people in other places would kill to have what I have,” he says sheepishly.

Rochester, New York also has a Promise program, writes Michael Holzman on Dropout Nation. Very few blacks — and even fewer black males — read proficiently in ninth grade and go on to earn a diploma at Rochester’s high schools. Only nine percent of blacks earned a degree in six years at Monroe Community College. The completion rate was five percent for black males.

Core requirements can be gatekeepers

General education requirements, meant to ensure students get a broad education, can result in them getting no education at all, writes Watson Scott Swail, president of the Educational Policy Institute, on The College Puzzle. A majority of community college students are placed in remedial courses because they’re not prepared for the core curriculum, he writes. Less than a quarter will complete any credential.

Eliminating unnecessary gatekeeper courses could enable more students to reach their goals, Swail writes.

At Tidewater Community College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, course requirements in diagnostic medical sonography include anatomy and physiology, mathematics, physics, English Composition, a social science elective, a humanities elective, and basic computer literacy.

. . . you understand the focus on anatomy and related technical courses. But the question remains why is it necessary to require non-related courses for graduation that, for many students, may become gatekeepers to completion?

Community college students struggle the most with math. But not everyone needs to master college algebra, writes Swail. Why make it a barrier to vocationally minded students?

“I’m not suggesting we don’t have a general core,” he writes. “I am suggesting we think very carefully about what the core is and what the benefit is to the student as well as the institution.”

Virginia community colleges have lowered math requirements for students pursuing non-STEM majors. Success rates are up.

Rethinking stress at test time

Developmental math students can rethink stress in order to do their best on tests, writes Jeremy Jamieson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, on Carnegie Commons.

Jamieson researches ways to help students deal with stress in partnership with Aaron Altose, an assistant math professor at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. They form an “Alpha Lab” team.

As a Quantway instructor, Altose tries to help students who’ve struggled with math develop a positive mindset. He’s learned that giving students information about how to prepare for tests doesn’t prevent test anxiety.

We talk about the proper amount of time to spend studying, finding the right environment, eating and sleeping well, and not cramming before a test. I’ve tried guiding students through progressive muscle relaxation before tests. I had a constantly evolving PowerPoint presentation comprised of information and articles I found online about understanding the ‘fight or flight’ response and high-pressure performers like Air Force pilots and emergency room doctors. But students sitting down to take a math test seemed to never take this information to heart.

Teaching people to see stress as a potentially useful coping mechanism can improve performance, research has found. Instead of trying to avoid stress, students can see it as a sign they’re ready for a challenge. In an Alpha Lab experiment, students were asked to inventory their feelings and emotions immediately before they take an exam. Then they read summaries of scientific articles highlighting the adaptive benefits of stress. “I know before a test, I just feel bad, but maybe what I really feel is determined,” one student said.

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.