January 19, 2009

Redesigning remedial education

The Bailey, Jeong, and Cho study of remedial education reported on by Inside Higher Ed today is not surprising, but it is still depressing: for the community-college students who most need direct assistance in skills, they are also the least likely to finish a sequence of remedial (aka developmental) courses and also likely not to start on such a sequence at all. I have a strong suspicion that these are not the students in their mid-20s who passed high school algebra courses with a B or higher and forgot the content over 6-10 years (and for whom high-school-age "college readiness" is an irrelevant concept). These are students who are barred from the regular curriculum by testing prerequisites and, at least according to this paper, are the least likely to finish a developmental sequence and start earning college credits.

In 1960, Burton Clark wrote an article that extended the 1952 Erving Goffman "cooling the mark out" argument (in the Goffman Reader) to community colleges; in 1984, Mark Ginsburg and Joanne Giles echoed that, and that's what the Bailey et al. paper appears to suggest: when remedial courses and a sequence of several courses is a gatekeeping mechanism that colleges use before a student can take a for-credit class, it discourages students not only from completing the sequence but often from beginning the sequence in the first place. (Also see John L. Johnson's article a few decades ago in the Journal of Special Education for a parallel argument with a sharp twist.)

Community colleges are in a bind here: faculty and administrators do not want to use the limited resources available to community colleges by giving seats to students who are unlikely to pass a class. But remedial classes are not costless, and I assume most faculty know that testing prerequisites also screen out a significant number of students whom colleges are supposed to be serving.

Here is where Kevin Carey's argument from the November Washington Monthly applies, if it applies generally. I shook my head when I read Carey's article a few months ago, because he was assuming or implying that most spending in public four-year institutions is on instruction (something the Delta Project should be disabusing us from). While there's another entry I need to write about how to think about spending on instruction, research, and football, let me get to the meat of this. Carey argued that there could be much better instruction squeezed from existing resources. This argument is based on the work of the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) and the evangelism of Carol Twigg on course redesigns. Twigg argues (and Carey picks up on this) that one can use technology to engage students more and use faculty, T.A., and staff time more efficiently.

I've talked with some thoughtful people in the college teaching-effectiveness world who are skeptical of Twigg's more extensive claims, but I'm willing to skip over those debates and say that below some level of resources, it is not possible to provide extensive one-on-one coaching, let alone individualized instruction on key topics in a course, and that Twigg's approach is most likely to be a reasonable strategy when resources are low and the material is reasonably standardized.

Remedial/developmental math courses seem to qualify on both fronts: in general it is in community colleges where resources are lowest and where there are a common set of expectations students must meet in reading and math.

But this is in the abstract -- obviously, many community colleges would need a short-term infusion of resources to transform developmental courses, and this should be tested rather than assumed to be true. Unfortunately, of the NCAT's current membership, there are only 8 community colleges (the majority in Texas), and no community college appear to have been involved in the FIPSE-funded projects in the past few years.

But this is a look from afar--those who teach or work in community colleges, please have at this idea!

Addendum: in comments, skoolboy (aka Aaron Pallas) properly takes me to task for forgetting Burton Clark. Mea culpa!

Listen to this article
Tags: Carol Twigg, community college, cooling the mark out, remedial education
Posted in Higher education on January 19, 2009 8:10 PM |